Supreme Court rejects census sampling plan

Supreme Court rejects census sampling plan

The Supreme Court Monday ruled that the Clinton administration cannot use statistical sampling methods for the 2000 census.

The federal census law does not allow for the use of statistical methods intended to make the population count more accurate, the justices said in a 5-4 ruling. When the Census Act was amended in 1976, "At no point ... did a single member of Congress suggest that the amendments would so fundamentally change the manner in which the bureau could calculate the population for purposes of apportionment," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court.

O'Connor said "it tests the limits of reason" to suggest that Congress would have been silent in enacting "what would arguably be the single most significant change in the method of conducting the decennial census since its inception."

The ruling, which experts say will have a major effect on the way congressional districts are drawn, is the culmination of a long partisan battle. The dispute started when the Census Bureau announced a plan to use two forms of statistical sampling in the 2000 census to address what officials said was a chronic problem of undercounting of some groups, including certain minorities, children, and renters.

Democrats embraced the idea. Minorities and inner-city residents, who tend to vote Democratic, made up a large share of the estimated 4 million people missed by the 1990 count. Republicans opposed sampling. People who tend to vote Republican also are more likely to voluntarily respond to the census.

Two lower courts ruled the government's sampling proposal unlawful last year, saying a federal census law barred adjustment of census figures used for dividing the House members among the states. The Clinton administration said the government has been forced to estimate at least part of the population in each census since 1940, but the Republicans argued that the Constitution allows only a one-by-one head count.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart characterized the decision as a "limited" ruling. "It did not deal with either the constitutional issue or whether statistical sampling could be used for things like redistricting and the apportionment of federal funds within states," he said.

Commerce Secretary William Daley said that while he was "disappointed" with the decision, the Census Bureau would move ahead with its sampling plans because the court's decision only prohibits the use of sampling for House reapportionment.

The Census Bureau is scheduled to launch its count on April 1, 2000.