WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court dealt a partial blow to the Clinton administration's plan to use sampling in the next census, ruling Monday that the adjusted population figures may not be used to reapportion congressional seats.
The 5-4 decision is expected to cost California one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives during the next decade.
However, the far broader dispute over whether statistically adjusted census data can be used to distribute $180 billon per year in federal funds or to draw electoral districts within the states remains unresolved.
The battle over the census has degenerated into an intensely partisan fight. Both parties know that the population totals can shift political power--between cities and suburbs and between fast-growing Sunbelt states and slow-growing areas of the Northeast.
The White House and the Census Bureau support the use of sampling in the next census, and administration officials said that they will go ahead as planned.
Census officials maintain that the adjusted numbers will be more accurate than the head count and they will more fairly enumerate the number of African Americans, Latinos and low-income Americans. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, whose department oversees the census, said that the adjusted figures will "create the most accurate census that the American people can have."
However, many House Republicans have opposed the use of sampling and insisted on the traditional head count.
Democrats, including President Clinton, believe that statistical sampling will increase political power in predominantly Democratic areas. Republican leaders, fearing the same result, have steadfasting opposed sampling.
Daley said he was disappointed that the court rejected the use of sampling for allocating congressional seats. "There is no question, as the court said, that sampling can be used for other purposes," such as sending out federal funds.
Under the current plan, census takers will go door-to-door across the nation to count those who have not returned their forms in the mail. This traditional method is referred to as the head count.
A few weeks later, in the summer of 2000, census takers will conduct an intense recount of selected areas, and the bureau will use these numbers to adjust their tallies.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said that the administration "should abandon its illegal and risky polling scheme and start preparing for a true head count."
Republican leaders could try to block the census sampling by cutting off its funding.
"The battle now moves to Capitol Hill," said Los Angeles lawyer Brian S. Currey, who represented the city and county of Los Angeles in a lawsuit that defended the use of sampling. Because of an "undercount" in 1990, Los Angeles city officials said that the city loses $12 million a year in federal funds, while the county loses $20 million annually.
After the 1990 census, statisticians concluded that at least 4 million Americans were missed and that minorities and the poor were disproportionately undercounted.
After the 1990 census, a follow-up study by statistical experts found that children and young men in African American communities were missed more often by census takers than whites and older people. Greater mobility in some minority areas may have been the reason, they suggested.
Census planners hope they can remedy this problem two years from now by devoting extra efforts to counting in selected minority neighborhoods and by adjusting the numbers for a larger area based on the selected recount. For example, if a block of mostly African American households is found to have been undercounted by 4%, statisticians will adjust upward the totals in similar African American neighborhoods by 4%.
The lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court began when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) went to court to challenge the administration's plan as illegal and unconstitutional.
The Constitution calls for "an actual enumeration" of the population every 10 years. Significantly, the Supreme Court did not rule on this constitutional provision Monday because it resolved the case based on a 1976 law.
In that measure, Congress encouraged the Census Bureau to use modern sampling techniques to obtain more accurate population data. However, the same law also prohibited the use of sampling "for the purposes of apportionment of representatives in Congress among the several states."
Citing this provision, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the government may not use "statistical sampling in calculating the population for the purposes of apportionment."
However, she acknowledged, the law "required that sampling be used for other purposes." Lawyers at the White House and Commerce Department said that these other purposes can include distributing federal money for highways, schools, housing and poverty assistance.