A ruling that counts on the 2000 Census Reluctant: Justices should rule definitively on proposal to avoid census undercount.

December 05, 1998

PERHAPS IT WOULD be a good thing, as Justice Antonin Scalia suggested, to let Congress and the White House "duke it out" over the 2000 Census.

The politicians may end up doing that. Now, though, the matter is before the Supreme Court, and the justices should deal with it squarely.

Pertinent questions were raised at a hearing this week. Do the House of Representatives and others have legal standing to file suit? Should the justices act as referee between Congress and the White House?

Good questions, but the only one legally before the court is whether statistical sampling should be allowed for congressional apportionment. Sampling is a method for estimating the 10 percent of the population that is missed by census enumerators. Statistics experts insist it is the fairest technique for correcting the undercount of millions of people every 10 years.

Since the first census in 1790, not everyone has been counted. But 1990 was the worst: 8.4 million people were missed, and 4 million were counted twice, making it the first census to be less accurate than its predecessor.

The 2000 Census promises to be more inaccurate. And the anticipated undercount will profoundly affect everything from the number of seats each state will have in the House of Representatives to how billions of federal dollars will be divided among school districts, cities, counties and states.

During Monday's hearing, the insidiousness of the opposition to sampling was spotlighted when Justice John Paul Stevens asked what should happen if census takers receive no response from residents of an obviously occupied apartment building. The attorney for the House said the enumerator would be bound to note "zero" occupants.

The real issue is that most victims of the undercount are the poor, the homeless, residents of the inner city and minorities, people Republicans fear would be instant Democrats.

Some of the justices seemed reluctant to let the politicians off the hook. Good point. But if the court skirts the issue now, it will be back. When House seats are lost, somebody will feel aggrieved.

That is why the best solution is for Congress and the White House to agree on a proposal for a nonpartisan agency to take charge of the census.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court should give as definitive a ruling as possible to provide guidance to lower courts and reason to what some view as insoluble.

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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