A panel of federal judges issued an injunction Friday blocking reapportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives based on the 1990 Census.
In Washington, a spokesman said the Justice Department was considering an appeal of the ruling to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, however, the ruling clouds the entire national redistricting process, the tortuous political tug-of-war in which district lines for congressional seats are redrawn following every national census.
At stake in the Montana case is the complex mathematical formula that the government uses to determine which states receive the last few congressional seats after each population count.
The case does not involve the often-discussed “undercount” of minorities by the census. Nor does it challenge the overall validity of the 1990 population count. Both issues have been challenged in other lawsuits.
In theory, the goal of the census is to guarantee that the 435 seats in the House are distributed to the states in such a way that each congressional district has about the same population. In practice, however, the division is never entirely equal because each state is guaranteed at least one seat, and congressional districts cannot cross state lines.
Several methods have been proposed to allocate House seats, but each one provides slightly different results. Under a method proposed by Montana, which brought the current challenge, that state would receive two seats instead of the one it is slated to receive. The extra seat would come at the expense of Washington state, which is expecting nine seats, according to Montana Assistant Atty. Gen. Beth Baker.
The state of Massachusetts, which also has gone to court to challenge the distribution formula, has advocated a third method.
In upholding Montana’s challenge, a special three-judge district court panel said the method used by Congress to allocate House seats after each census fails to meet the constitutional requirement to ensure equal representation for citizens.
“By complacently relying, for over 50 years, on an apportionment method which does not even consider absolute population variances between districts, Congress has ignored the goal of equal representation for equal numbers of voters,” wrote Charles C. Lovell and James F. Battin, two of Montana’s U.S. district judges.
“The court finds that unjustified and avoidable population differences between districts exist under the present apportionment,” they said.
U.S. District Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scanlain of Portland, the third member of the panel, dissented.
According to the 1990 Census, the ideal congressional district would contain 572,000 people. But the automatic reapportionment process would leave Montana with one district of 800,000 residents--the most-populated district in the nation.
The lawsuit also challenged the automatic application of the formula, which it said deprives Montana’s senators and representatives of their right to vote on the issue.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Montana Atty. Gen. Marc Racicot and other Montana elected officials--Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns, Reps. Ron Marlenee and Pat Williams, Gov. Stan Stephens and Secretary of State Mike Cooney.
Marlenee, a Republican, and Williams, a Democrat, have already started campaigning against each other for the single House seat.
Defendants in the case are the U.S. Commerce Department; the U.S. Census Bureau; Census Bureau Director Barbara Everitt Bryant, and Donald K. Anderson, the clerk of the House who notified states of the new apportionment.
An appeal of Friday’s ruling likely would come soon, because states in the middle of redistricting debates are left under a cloud of uncertainty in the interim.
“What I think is likely is that the Supreme Court will allow the current redistricting to go forward, even if they decide to hear this case,” said Jeffrey Wice, an attorney who works on reapportionment issues for Democrats. “But for now everything is pretty murky.”
Congress could pass a law giving Montana an additional seat--increasing the size of the House to 436. But that is considered unlikely because every state losing seats could then make the same petition.
“You’d have to please every state, not just one state, and that would take 40 to 50 seats,” Wice said.