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  •   Rehnquist Requests Separate Judiciary Funding

    Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. (AP)
    By Joan Biskupic
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, March 31, 1999; Page A27

    Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has asked congressional leaders not to make the federal judiciary's budget a hostage in the fight between Congress and the White House over how to conduct the 2000 census.

    "If funding for the judiciary were to be cut off," Rehnquist wrote in a rare missive to Hill leaders, ". . . every sector of the judicial branch will be affected, including probation and pretrial service officers who supervise 120,000 released criminals and those accused of crimes."

    The federal judiciary's current appropriation, along with money for the departments of Commerce, Justice and State, is set to expire June 15 unless the Republican-led Congress reaches a deal with the Clinton administration over whether and how to correct the usual census undercount of poor people and minorities. Rehnquist, in his letter dated March 17 and released by court officials yesterday, urged Congress to carve out the judiciary appropriation so it is not affected by the June 15 cutoff date.

    The long-simmering dispute arises from the Clinton administration's proposal to use a statistical "sampling" system--extrapolating from actual counts in certain census tracts--to compensate for people missed by mailed surveys, house visits and other traditional methods for the decennial head count. House Republicans have vigorously opposed the sampling plan, contending it is open to manipulation and would likely benefit Democrats.

    The feud comes down to politics. Census figures are used to divide congressional seats among the states, to draw state legislative districts and to allocate about $200 billion in federal funds each year.

    After the House of Representatives challenged the sampling plan in a lawsuit, the Supreme Court ruled that federal law requires an actual count to be used for the reapportionment of congressional seats. But the January decision did not forbid sampling for other census-related uses and observed that in some cases federal law would require the adjusted figures.

    The judiciary is caught up in the money fight simply because its budget is included in the appropriations act that covers the Census Bureau.

    "The judicial branch should not, and does not, have any role in this debate, as the resolution of this issue very properly rests with the political branches of government," Rehnquist wrote to House and Senate leaders and chairmen of the appropriations and judiciary committees.

    Rehnquist noted that three years ago during another budget fight, Congress acted specifically to exclude the judiciary's appropriation from the battle, two months before the executive branch agencies were funded. "In the same spirit which has motivated that action," the chief justice said, "I urge in the strongest possible terms that funding for the judiciary quickly be made available for the remainder of this year."

    A court spokeswoman said yesterday that Rehnquist had not yet received any response to his letter. Congressional sources said there is great pressure to reach some deal before June 15, not only to avoid drawing the judiciary, an independent branch of government, into the fray, but to protect spending for all the programs at risk.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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