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Case Contesting Census Count To Be Heard

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to decide whether federal officials are obligated to adjust U.S. Census figures to compensate for an undercount of members of minority groups.

The political and financial stakes are high, as census figures are used to draw election districts and to apportion funds under many federal programs.

Those programs include many federal education efforts, such as the Title I compensatory-education program, and the outcome of the case will directly affect the share of federal dollars that flows to each state and school district.

The High Court agreed to hear an appeal that stems from a major challenge to the 1990 census by dozens of cities, whose officials contend that the U.S. Department of Commerce should have followed the advice of its own experts and adjusted the 1990 count to reflect more accurately the number of urban residents.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based association representing the nation's large urban districts, is a party to the case, U.S. Department of Commerce v. City of New York (Case No. 94-1985), along with municipal governments in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities.

A 'Permissible' Decision?

The plaintiffs argue that then-Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher should have adjusted 1990 figures after experts estimated that the census had failed to count about 1.6 percent of the population, an estimate the Commerce Department did not dispute.

Members of minority groups were undercounted at a much higher rate. According to Commerce Department data filed with the High Court, African-Americans were undercounted by an estimated 4.8 percent, Hispanics by 5.2 percent, Asians-Pacific Islanders by 3.1 percent, and American Indians by 5 percent.

In 1991, Mr. Mosbacher rejected a statistical adjustment proposed by some in the Census Bureau. He acknowledged that an adjustment would yield a more accurate national head count, but he questioned whether it would provide an improved account of the way the population is distributed among the states and localities.

The cities' subsequent legal challenge was rejected by a federal district court, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the Commerce Department did not make a good-faith effort to come up with the most accurate national count and must do more to justify a decision not to adjust the census.

The Commerce Department appealed to the High Court, which granted review on Sept. 27 and will hear the case sometime late this year or early next year.

The Clinton administration is defending the Bush administration's decision, arguing in its brief that the courts should not try to determine the best way to conduct the census, but decide only whether Mr. Mosbacher's decision was "constitutionally permissible."

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