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In Defeat to Urban Areas, High Court Upholds 1990 Census Bureau

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court last week dashed the hopes of large cities and school districts that the 1990 census might be adjusted to reflect an undercount of minorities.

The high court ruled unanimously that Congress has given the U.S. secretary of commerce broad authority over census methodology and that the secretary does not need to do more to justify a decision against a statistical adjustment to the federal government's 1990 population count.

The March 20 decision in Wisconsin v. City of New York (Case No. 94-1614) was a defeat for several big cities and the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based association of the nation's large urban districts.

The council and such cities as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and others challenged the 1990 census results because the Bureau of the Census acknowledged that members of minority groups were undercounted at a much higher rate than the general population.

Since census figures are used to draw election districts and apportion federal funds in numerous aid programs, the result of any undercount is a loss of political clout and money.

"Virtually every federal aid program is counting somebody, and most are counting people in poverty," said Jeff Simmering, the legislative director for the Great City Schools. "We feel there are a lot of people in urban areas who weren't counted."

'Unlimited Discretion'

Census Bureau figures indicate that the 1990 tally failed to count about 1.6 percent of the general population. But members of minority groups, who tend to live in urban areas, were undercounted at higher rates, including an estimated 4.8 percent for African-Americans and 5.2 percent for Hispanics.

In 1991, then-Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher rejected a statistical adjustment proposed by some Census Bureau experts. He agreed that the adjustment would result in a better national head count, but he questioned whether it would provide a better accounting of the way the population is distributed among the states and localities.

A federal district court rejected the cities' legal challenge, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled in 1994 that the Department of Commerce had not made a good-faith effort to come up with the most accurate national count and must do more to justify the decision against adjusting the census.

The Commerce Department, along with Wisconsin and Oklahoma, two states that stood to lose in the adjustment, appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist pointed out in his opinion last week that virtually every census is challenged by "a plethora of lawsuits," but that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress "virtually unlimited discretion" over the decennial count.

The secretary of commerce "determined that in light of the constitutional purpose of the census, an actual enumeration would best be achieved without the ... statistical adjustment of the results of the initial enumeration," he wrote. "We find that conclusion entirely reasonable."

Chief Justice Rehnquist noted that Mr. Mosbacher, who served under President Bush, was concerned that the adjusted figures "became increasingly unreliable as one focused upon smaller and smaller political subdivisions."

Mr. Simmering said that the decision not to adjust the count was essentially a political one by the Bush administration, since adding minority-group members to the count would have benefited traditionally Democratic strongholds.

"I can't believe [the Bush administration] would be so naive not to look at the political ramifications," he said.

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