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High Court Hears Census Debate

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The bitter partisan battle over whether the Census Bureau may use statistical sampling to estimate the nation's population in the 2000 census landed at the feet of the Supreme Court today. Sampling proponents have little to gain and much to lose in the case. The court may find that sampling--statistical methods that would add people missed in a head count--is illegal or unconstitutional; if it doesn't, debate will go back to the House, where legislators who oppose sampling may try to withhold funding for the effort.

This summer, two U.S. District courts ruled unanimously that sampling violated the Census Act (see ScienceNOW, 24 August), and the Census Bureau appealed both cases to the Supreme Court. The bureau plans to use sampling to estimate some 10% of the nation's population, which it says will be more accurate and save $675 million. House Republicans and others have called for a traditional person-by-person count, arguing that the sampling procedure is subjective and would be prone to partisan tampering.

"We do not contest that it's more accurate, but sampling is illegal and unconstitutional," Michael Carvin, an attorney with Cooper & Carvin, told the court. Solicitor General Seth Waxman argued on behalf of the bureau that the case should be thrown out because neither the House nor the other plaintiffs had standing to bring the case--that is, they haven't been legitimately harmed by sampling. In any case, he said, the law both permits and encourages sampling. The Census Act reads, in part, The Secretary of Commerce shall conduct the census "in such form and content as he may determine including the use of sampling procedures and special surveys."

A ruling is expected by early summer, but that probably won't end the debate. The case before the court focuses only on whether sampling numbers may be used to divvy up House seats among the states. That leaves open the possibility of using sampling to derive a second population count that could be used for redistricting or parceling out federal funds. "If we [sampling proponents] lose in court, we would definitely be moving toward a two-number census," Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) told ScienceNOW. Some Republicans have said they oppose such a plan. Congress will likely debate the issue when it decides whether, and under what conditions, to extend the Census Bureau's authority to spend its 1999 funds, which expires on 15 June.