Court challenge to census stands

Saturday, November 23, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department will not appeal a ruling ordering the Census Bureau to release figures estimating how many people were missed in the 2000 population count, a decision that could affect how billions of federal dollars are distributed.

Justice lawyers had until Friday to appeal last month's decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The judges said the public is entitled to see Census Bureau figures adjusted by statistical sampling.

"We are not filing anything," Charles Miller, spokesman for the Justice Department's civil division, said hours before the midnight deadline. The Census Bureau had no immediate comment.

Democrats, big-city politicians and civil rights groups have charged that the 2000 census missed roughly 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. The funding helps pay for Medicaid, foster care and other social service programs.

"People would like to see this data," said Tom Sussman, attorney for Oregon legislators who sued to have the figures released. "We don't know if it's helpful or harmful or not, but you've got to see it first."

The population count is taken every 10 years. The bureau sends census takers and questionnaires to every household, though not every one responds. The bureau tabulates the results and sends them to federal social service agencies, which use them to determine how much money goes to each state.

The census also reallocates House seats based on population changes. A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling bars the use of adjusted numbers for reapportioning congressional seats.


After the 2000 count, the Census Bureau used mathematical formulas to estimate how many people were missed, a population termed the "undercount."

Opponents of releasing the adjusted data, mainly Republicans, have said the complicated statistical methods used to determine the undercount would add more error into a census that the bureau deemed to have one of the lowest national undercount rates ever.

Critics also have said that while adjustments count missed people, they may not allocate them to the proper neighborhoods because the formula is less accurate on the local level.

The Bush administration in October 2001 backed the bureau's decision not to release sampling data. Oregon state Sens. Susan Castillo and Margaret Carter, both Democrats, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the adjusted figures, and the bureau asked for an exception to the law.

A month later, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden of Portland, Ore., ordered the government to release the undercount.

Last month, the appellate court sided with Redden, rejecting the bureau's arguments that releasing the data would expose sensitive internal debates and have a "chilling effect" on future policy discussions at the agency.

The ruling does not compel the bureau to use the adjusted figures to recalculate how federal aid is disbursed, though census officials have said they might do that if they lost the case.

The bureau previously has said it might use adjusted data in the future when determining.

Regardless of what the bureau does, the amount of money distributed to each state won't change. However, state and local governments have the option, if their laws allow, to use the adjusted numbers to redraw state and municipal political districts and reconfigure how federal dollars are disbursed to the local social service programs.

"Now that these data will be made available, the public and scientists can finally judge for themselves which data was more accurate," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "Openness, not secrecy, is simply the best way to make good decisions for the country's future."

But Rep. David Weldon, R-Fla., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's census panel, said any use of adjusted data "would be as flawed as the data itself."

"This is data that the statistical experts at the Census Bureau don't have faith in. They don't believe it's accurate and they believe that the actual census is the best available count," Weldon said.

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