WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court affirmed a 40-year-old population estimating technique on Monday, turning back a challenge to census numbers that Utah claims robbed it of a House seat.
The court ended a tug-of-war between Utah and North Carolina, finding that the government did nothing wrong in filling in gaps in the last census.
The ruling is good for Democrats, who stand to benefit from the seat going to North Carolina instead of Utah.
The Supreme Court ruled that the technique used by the Census Bureau to gather population data was not unconstitutional. The method, known as "imputation," allows headcounters who can't reach anyone at a home to use data from a neighbor's household.
The court ruled 5-4 that the technique was not sampling, which justices said in 1999 could not be used to apportion the 435 House seats. The Supreme Court did not rule then that sampling was unconstitutional for other purposes, such as distribution of federal dollars.
Again in this case, the court stopped short of saying that census counters are limited to a traditional nose count under the Constitution's requirement of an "actual enumeration" every 10 years.
Census takers first mail a questionnaire to every known household, then make personal visits. Imputation is a last resort, after as many as six visits fail to find anyone, the Census Bureau says.
The technique applies to only a tiny fraction of the nation's 105 million households. It added less than a half percent to the population of 286 million people.
The case had put justices in an awkward position, reopening the 2000 census two years after the fact and drawing questions of whether the court had the power to intervene and force Congress and the president to change the congressional map.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said that when "all efforts have been made to reach every household," a technique like imputation is allowed. He noted that it involved a tiny percent of the population.
He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The Census Bureau has used imputation to divvy congressional seats since 1960. The bureau, backed by the Bush administration, maintains that the estimating method is a proven, commonsense tool that makes the census more accurate.
Census numbers are used to parcel out House seats, government money and more.
Utah came within 900 people of getting an additional House seat, which went to the fast-growing North Carolina. Utah was given three seats, and North Carolina 13 after the latest count.
Utah contended that part of the final 2000 data should be thrown out.
The court's decision halted Utah's second effort to get a fourth member of Congress. Last year, Utah lost a Supreme Court case that claimed the state should get credit for large numbers of Mormon missionaries not included in the census because they were working overseas.
The case is Utah v. Evans, 01-714.