Justices reject census sampling

In setback to cities, court says count must determine House seats

January 26, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Splitting 5-4, the Supreme Court yesterday rejected the Clinton administration's plan to use statistical sampling to make up for individuals who get overlooked in the 2000 census.

The court ruled that the allocation of House of Representatives seats after the next census must be based on a head count.

The decision was a major setback for cities, for the Democratic Party and for a key part of its following: minorities, who are more often missed in counts by census-takers. The "undercount" in the 1990 census left out more than 4 million people, mainly urban minorities and children, according to the Census Bureau.

The justices left open the possibility that sampling could be used to adjust population figures for two purposes -- dividing up $180 billion in federal aid to the states and redrawing election districts at other levels of government.

It ruled narrowly that the census law does not permit sampling during the count every decade that is used to reapportion the 435 House seats among the states. It did not rule on the broader question of whether sampling is unconstitutional.

However, four of the justices in the majority said "a strong case can be made" that sampling is unconstitutional. It would have taken five votes to establish that proposition.

The challenge to the Clinton administration's plan for the first-time use of sampling in the decennial census was made by the House, by four counties and by individual voters in 13 states. The court did not rule on whether the House could challenge the plan but found that the other challengers had made their case.

The court majority decided an actual count -- in person, or by mail with follow-up, in-person contacts -- is the only method allowed by federal census law for House apportionment.

"From the very first census, the census of 1790," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority, "Congress has prohibited the use of statistical sampling in calculating the population for purposes of [House] apportionment."

To Baltimore's dismay

Baltimore, one of the cities in which minority population is thought to be undercounted in every census, could lose some access to federal money if sampling is not allowed for federal funding purposes after the 2000 census. The city's relative power in the the General Assembly also could be adversely affected.

News of the decision frustrated officials in Baltimore, where one of every four dollars spent in the city's $1.8 billion annual budget comes from the federal government.

City leaders, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, supported census sampling, noting that the majority of Baltimore's population -- 60 percent -- is black.

In the 1990 census, an estimated 4.4 percent of the nation's African-American population was not counted, the biggest segment being males ages 18 to 34.

Baltimore officials say minorities tend to be undercounted because, if they are poor, they do not own property and are less likely to respond to census surveys.

"It's a shame," said Gloria Griffin, a city planner helping to organize a group to ensure a more accurate Baltimore census. "Those poor souls who really need [the federal aid] are not going to get it."

If sampling is done next year for purposes other than House apportionment, it could result in two versions of the nation's 2000 population: one for allocation of seats in the House, a second for everything else.

But sampling can occur next year only if Congress approves the necessary money. Republicans strongly oppose sampling, because it appears to favor Democrats.

Yesterday's decision, because of its limited scope, reignited that partisan controversy as it bears upon the Census Bureau's legal authority to use sampling techniques to calculate national, state and local populations for these key purposes:

Dividing $180 billion in federal funding for social programs -- an allocation keyed to population;

Calculating where to draw the lines for House election districts, once the seats have been apportioned among the states, and districts for state legislatures and local governing bodies -- keyed to population within states.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert repeated the GOP opposition after the court's ruling, saying: "The [Clinton] administration should abandon its illegal and risky polling scheme and start preparing for a true head count."

President Clinton appears to have no intention of abandoning support for sampling within the limits that the Supreme Court ruling may permit. He reiterated his support for sampling in his State of the Union message last week, and the White House noted pointedly yesterday that the high court had not ruled sampling to be unconstitutional.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, interpreted the ruling to mean that the Census Bureau is required to do sampling for purposes of redistricting and distribution of federal funding.

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