Census Bureau ordered to release adjusted count

Thursday, October 10, 2002

PORTLAND, Ore. -- A federal appeals court ruled that the Census Bureau must release its statistically adjusted count for every state, county and neighborhood in the country -- a decision that could affect how billions in government money is distributed.

Democrats, big-city politicians and civil rights groups have charged that the 2000 census missed 3.2 million people -- most of them minorities and the poor -- and that many communities are being shortchanged government funding that is distributed by population.

In a unanimous decision filed late Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the public is entitled under federal open-government law to see the Census Bureau's adjusted figures, which show how many people were probably missed.

The court rejected Census Bureau arguments that releasing the data would expose sensitive internal debates and have a "chilling effect" on future policy discussions at the agency.

Census Bureau officials declined to comment and referred calls to the Justice Department, where spokesman Charles Miller said no decision has been made on whether to appeal to the Supreme Court. He would not comment on the ruling itself.

After census takers and census questionnaires were sent out in 2000, the Census Bureau used mathematical formulas to estimate how many minorities, renters and others might have been missed in inner cities, rural areas and other places. Those figures are often called the "undercount."

But the Census Bureau refused to release the undercount, contending the adjusted figures are unreliable and would cause political battles over federal funding. The bureau has instead been releasing only the unadjusted population counts arrived at through census takers and questionnaires.

The ruling only mandates that the Census Bureau release the adjusted figures. It does not actually force the bureau to use those numbers in place of the unadjusted figures that were issued for political redistricting and the distribution of billions in federal funding.

A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling bars the use of adjusted numbers for reapportioning congressional seats.

However, the Census Bureau has left open the possibility of using adjusted data for federal funding in the future. And state and local governments would be free to use the adjusted numbers for redistricting and for distributing tax dollars, unless the laws there say otherwise.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., welcomed Tuesday's ruling.

"There are many people who have doubts about the Census Bureau's decision and the way the Bush administration made the decision," she said. "This information would help scientists and the public better judge for themselves whether they made the right decision or not."

The case went to court after Oregon state Sens. Susan Castillo and Margaret Carter, both Democrats, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the adjusted population figures. The Census Bureau asked for an exception to the law.

U.S. District Judge James A. Redden of Portland ordered the government last November to release the undercount. But the government appealed.

At an appeals court hearing in Portland last month, Justice Department lawyer Gregory Katsas argued that disclosing the adjusted numbers and the methods for obtaining them would have a "potentially chilling" effect on how the population is counted.

A decade ago, the Census Bureau also tried to withhold the adjusted count for the 1990 census, but the California Legislature went to court to demand its release. The numbers were disclosed after the 9th Circuit rejected similar arguments.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: