SALT LAKE CITY – A three-judge panel on Tuesday unanimously dismissed Utah's complaint that it lost an extra congressional seat because the Census Bureau did not count 11,176 Utah residents who were on overseas missions for the Mormon church.
The panel said the missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up only a fraction of Americans living overseas and that counting them would give Utah a huge advantage over other states. Three of four Utah residents are Mormons.
The judges also rejected Utah's complaint alleging the Census Bureau uses guesswork to count all Americans, and that the state was the victim of religious discrimination.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he would appeal the case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Gov. Mike Leavitt said Utah deserves the fourth U.S. House seat.
"Although we're disappointed, I have very high regard for the three judges who handled the case. We'll be reviewing our legal options," Leavitt said.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said he was pleased with the decision.
Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Anderson and U.S. District Court Judges Dee Benson and David Winder rejected every one of Utah's arguments.
The judges said no one knows for certain how many Americans are living overseas at any particular time. The Census Bureau has estimated the number at 5 million, which only shows that Utah's 11,176 missionaries are a small part of the equation, the judges said.
Because Utah has the lion's share of all 24,251 Americans serving Mormon missions aboard, it would gain a huge advantage over other states if they were counted, they said.
Counting Mormon missionaries does nothing for the cause of equal representation and undermines that goal, the panel concluded.
A complex allocation formula left Utah just 857 residents shy of gaining a fourth congressional seat that instead became North Carolina's 13th seat. Utah would take that seat from North Carolina if it prevails in court.
Utah alternately argues that the Census Bureau should exclude all federal employees overseas, including members of the armed forces. That also could give Utah another House seat.
But the panel said that would require the Census Bureau to start over and run against a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Judge Benson, a Mormon, agreed with the majority but filed an opinion saying it went too far in rejecting Utah's claim.
"The only finding necessary to our decision is that the Census Bureau had a rational basis for the manner in which it carried out the 2000 census, and therefore did not abuse its discretion in deciding not to count any overseas Americans beyond U.S. government employees. That is all we need to say," Benson said.
Benson said he disagreed that Utah would gain an unfair advantage from the counting of overseas Mormon missionaries, and he seemed to encourage the Census Bureau to include them the next time. He said the bureau had the discretion to do it.