Judges Reject Census Sampling
By Barbara Vobejda
A federal court yesterday handed the Clinton administration a serious setback in its plans to use a controversial statistical method to conduct the 2000 census, declaring that the administration's proposal to estimate a portion of the nation's population rather than try to reach every household is illegal and cannot be used.
The three-judge special panel ruled unanimously in favor of the House Republicans who had challenged the Census Bureau plan, giving them a powerful victory on an issue that has been a major point of contention between Congress and the administration for more than a year.
In their suit, congressional Republicans argued that so-called "statistical sampling" is unconstitutional and vulnerable to political manipulation. Democrats and administration officials, who vowed to appeal yesterday's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, contend that the head count method alone misses too many Americans.
In hopes of getting more accurate population figures, the Census Bureau wants to combine the results of a traditional head count with a statistical "sample" that uses information drawn from a representative group to estimate the size and demographic characteristics of Americans who don't respond to mailed questionnaires or are missed in door-to-door surveys.
The arcane details of the next census carry enormous weight because the results are used to determine political boundaries and could shift control of the House of Representatives. And because the people most likely to be added to the population count by the use of "sampling" are considered much more likely to be minorities and poor people who traditionally support Democrats, the method itself has become the focus of a bitter partisan fight.
The court opinion, written by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, granted the request of House Republicans that the administration be permanently blocked from using statistical sampling as it had proposed.
Lamberth, who was joined by U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina and U.S. Appeals Court Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, found that sampling violated the Census Act, a long-standing statute governing the Census Bureau and its operations. The judges pointed to language in the act that says statistical sampling cannot be used to determine how many House seats each state receives.
But the panel voiced no opinion on whether the method violates the U.S. Constitution, an argument that has been made by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who led House Republicans in their legal challenge to the census plan.
"The Clinton administration's illegal and unconstitutional scheme to manipulate our census for the express purposes of political gain has been exposed," Gingrich said yesterday.
Aside from the legal dispute at the center of the lawsuit, yesterday's ruling heightens a very real problem for the Clinton administration: The Census Bureau is in the final stages of preparing for the next national head count the federal government's largest undertaking short of war but it does not know which of two very different blueprints it must follow.
The Census Bureau now must wait for the outcome of an appeal to the Supreme Court and clear instructions from Congress. As a result, is is unlikely to know until next spring how it will conduct the next census. That would leave it less than a year to pull together a $4 billion operation that must employ at least 295,000 people and to recruit 2.6 million applicants for those jobs.
Experts, including the General Accounting Office, already have warned that the next census is at risk of serious problems because of the congressional impasse over whether to use sampling.
Commerce Secretary William M. Daley said yesterday that while the case is being appealed, the Census Bureau will continue planning to conduct both a traditional head count and one using statistical sampling. At the same time, he argued that sampling "will produce much more accurate results and at far less cost," a position that has been endorsed by a National Academy of Sciences panel.
In addition to the lawsuit, Republicans have been using the appropriations process to oppose the administration's plan, voting to limit funding to the Census Bureau if the money would be used to prepare for statistical sampling.
Republicans agree that the method used for the last census was insufficient, but they argue that the solution is to work more diligently on improving the head count method not to rely on population estimates.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who has spearheaded Democrats' efforts to use sampling, said the ruling was "out of step with previous decisions. It clearly shows that this must be resolved by the Supreme Court."
Under legislation approved last fall, House Republicans were allowed to challenge the sampling plan under an expedited timetable, in hopes of having legal and constitutional questions resolved quickly.
Legal experts on both sides said they anticipated that the Supreme Court will take up the case.
House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo), joined the administration in arguing that the Republicans did not have "standing" to file a legal challenge because no one has yet been harmed by the use of sampling.
But the judges rejected that argument, finding that because the House has, by law, the right to receive information derived by the census and because that information will affect the composition of the House, its members have the right to challenge the method before it is used.
The panel also agreed with Republicans that the Census Act prohibits the use of sampling to divide House seats among the states. The question arose because of two conflicting references in the Census Act regarding the use of sampling.
Of the three-judge panel, Lamberth and Ginsburg both were Reagan appointees; Urbina was appointed by Clinton.
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