Panel rejects lawsuit seeking to add House seats

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Published: July 12,2010

Tags: Congress, courts, government

OXFORD — A three-judge federal panel rejected a lawsuit that sought to double or even quadruple the size of the U.S. House after a lawsuit in Mississippi claimed residents didn’t have enough representatives while other states had too many.

The panel in Oxford ruled that “Congress’ decision to limit the number of representatives to 435 is valid.”

The lawsuit, considered a long shot by some experts, was filed against U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whose department oversees the Census, Census Bureau director Robert Groves and others.

It claimed the principle of one-person, one-vote was violated because congressional districts vary widely in population from state to state.

The panel’s opinion was written by Judge Leslie Southwick of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who said the U.S. Supreme Court over the years had found the system used to reapportion Congress valid.

“We do not put a finger on the scale to alter the balance reached,” Southwick wrote.

The Census Bureau counts the U.S. population every 10 years, and congressional districts are readjusted. Some states gain or lose seats, depending on how population has shifted.

The number of House seats has increased since 1787, when the Constitution set the original number at 65. For most of the past century, there have been 435 seats divided among the 50 states.

Justice Department attorneys wrote in court papers that the Constitution requires each state to have at least one representative, and Congress has the power to determine how many seats are in the House.

Plaintiffs argued that adding House seats would make it easier to create districts roughly balanced by the number of residents. The lawsuit suggested expanding the House to either 1,761 seats or 932 — an expensive, time-consuming and politically contentious proposal.

Attorney Michael Farris filed the suit on behalf of people in states with high-population congressional districts and said he’d like to see Congress expanded soon after the 2010 Census is completed.

Farris did not immediately return a call seeking comment, nor did Department of Justice attorneys.

Farris is a Washington, D.C., lawyer active in the homeschool movement and chairman and chancellor of Patrick Henry College, a Christian college founded 10 years ago in Purcellville, Va. He said many of the plaintiffs are former homeschooled students, now in college, who live in states he believes are underrepresented in Congress.

Farris said he filed the suit in Mississippi because it is one of the underrepresented states. The lead plaintiff was John Tyler Clemons, who was a University of Mississippi student when the suit was filed last fall.

The federal panel, however, said disparities in the number of representatives allotted to the states is nothing new.

“We see no reason to believe that the Constitution as originally understood or long applied imposes the requirements of close equality among districts in different states that the plaintiffs seek here,” the panel said.

The panel said while the plaintiffs wanted increases in the number of U.S. House members, they acknowledged at the same time that there would still be population disparities.

“Congress’s failure, then, to make the inequality slightly less is within its discretion to balance many factors … that cannot then be reviewed by elementary arithmetic,” the panel said.

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