Census Case Awaits Action by High Court

WASHINGTON – With billions of dollars in federal money at stake, including as much as $1 billion in Texas, the Supreme Court may soon settle a heated partisan debate over how the Census Bureau counts Americans.

In the court term beginning today, the nine justices plan to examine a case brought by House Republicans over a Census Bureau plan to use statistical sampling in the 2000 Census.

The bureau's plan for 2000 calls for a traditional counting of about 90 percent of the population, conducted by mailing questionnaires to households and surveying door-to-door. The sampling would be used to estimate the remaining 10 percent, often minorities and inner-city residents who traditionally have supported Democrats.

The bureau’s plan for 2000 calls for a traditional counting of about 90 percent of the population, conducted by mailing questionnaires to households and surveying door-to-door. The sampling would be used to estimate the remaining 10 percent, often minorities and inner-city residents who traditionally have supported Democrats.

The technique aims to count poor people, transients and others who sometimes are not counted by such traditional means as mailings or door-to-door surveys.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., whose party controls both chambers of Congress, argues that statistical sampling is a “dagger aimed at the heart of our majority.”

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who is expected to run for president in 2000, says the GOP objections to statistical sampling amount to a “Republican legal war to force an undercount of millions of Americans.”

The case against statistical sampling could be the most watched issue on a crowded court agenda. The justices will also examine affirmative action, patent law, sexual harassment, the right of states to impose welfare limits on new residents, and police searches of cars stopped for traffic violations.

The census methodology is a high-stakes issue in every state.

Census data, gathered every decade as required by the Constitution, is used to reallocate House seats among the states, to redraw the boundaries of House districts and to distribute hundreds of billions of federal dollars.

States with large minority populations, such as New York, California, Illinois and Texas, could gain House seats at the expense of states with smaller minority populations. Gingrich and other Republicans are concerned that their party could lose congressional seats in that scenario because minority voters still tend to vote more for Democrats, although the GOP has made gains in recent elections.

The Census Bureau estimates that its 1990 Census overlooked 4 million people, about 1.6 percent of the population, including 4.8 percent of African-Americans and 5.2 percent of Hispanics.

The bureau says that it missed about a half-million people in Texas in 1990, costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in highway and Medicaid money this decade.

Texas Attorney General Dan Morales has predicted that Texas stands to lose $1 billion if statistical sampling is not used and the state’s population is again undercounted.

But Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, says the Constitution calls for an “actual enumeration” of the population, meaning that the Census Bureau must do a national head count.

“I think the Constitution is pretty clear that you have to actually go out and count people,” said Barton, who added that most of those not counted do not want to be counted. “I don’t see any sense in going to some arithmetic and technical sampling technique to try to offset people that – for whatever reason – literally don’t want to be counted.”

The bureau’s plan for 2000 calls for a traditional counting of about 90 percent of the population, conducted by mailing questionnaires to households and surveying door-to-door. The sampling would be used to estimate the remaining 10 percent, often minorities and inner-city residents who traditionally have supported Democrats.

Commerce Secretary Bill Daley says the Census Bureau, which is under his control, wants to use “the most modern scientific methods to ensure an accurate and fair census.”

Both the White House and the House GOP leadership, which brought the lawsuit to block the use of sampling, have urged the high court to expedite its hearing of the case. The court agreed; it is expected to hear arguments Nov. 30 and deliver a decision by late March.

The case before the court stems from the Clinton administration’s appeal of an Aug. 24 ruling of a special three-judge Federal District Court in Washington. The judges found that Gingrich and other House leaders had the right to challenge the Census Bureau on the grounds that sampling violates a 1957 law that details how the census is to be conducted.

In filings, the administration asks the high court to look at whether the House can legally challenge the Census Bureau’s plans, whether the use of sampling is constitutional and whether federal laws governing the census permit sampling.

“It is clear to most experts that only the Census Bureau’s plan will guarantee a fair and accurate count,” Gephardt said.

“We can’t afford to miss 6 million-plus American citizens when we make a host of government decisions based on the 2000 census. Under our Constitution, all citizens are created equal, so each and every one needs to be counted. Democrats only have one overriding goal for this census: making sure all Americans are counted, without regard to race, religion, or place of residence.”

Republicans argue that the sampling is not reliable enough, considering the importance of the data gathered. And they add that the Clinton administration could manipulate the data to the advantage of House Democrats.

Other cases before high court Some of the cases expected to be considered by the Supreme Court in its new term, beginning today: *Whether schools can be held liable for sexual harassment committed by one student against another. The case stems from a suit filed by a Georgia woman whose daughter was harassed at school.

School officials declined to intervene.

*Whether a school board, with no real history of racial discrimination, can use its goals for diversity to choose minority employees over white employees. The case was initiated by a white New Jersey teacher who was laid off to save a black teacher’s job.

*Whether a South Bend, Ind., company infringed on a patent for a socket that holds semiconductor chips for testing, registered to Dallas inventor Wayne Pfaff. Patent law says a patent cannot be obtained if an invention is on sale for one year before a patent is applied for.

*Whether Wyoming state police acted constitutionally after they stopped a car for speeding. Spotting a syringe in the pocket of the driver, the officers searched him and two other occupants. The police found drugs in the purse of one passenger. The Wyoming Supreme Court overturned the passenger’s drug possession conviction. The state attorney general appealed to the high court.

Source: Star-Telegram Washington Bureau

Author: Michael D. Towle; Knight Ridder – Washington Bureau

Copyright 1998 Star-Telegram, Inc.

Michael D. Towle, (202) 383-6104 mtowlekr@washington.com