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Wednesday, April 14, 1999
Joe D. Whitley

Political spin should not compromise the census

Rulings by the United States Supreme Court are, by their very nature, complex. In many instances, news accounts tell only part of the story due to space limitations in the print media and time constraints on television and radio news programs. In addition, after a decision is rendered, the "spin" from interested parties contributes to misinformation about what an opinion really says.

Unfortunately, all of these factors converged in the media coverage of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the 2000 Census. Immediately after the ruling, the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats issued press releases stating that the decision, while requiring a traditional head count enumeration to allocate congressional seats amongst the states, actually required the use of statistical polling for all other purposes, including congressional redistricting. Major newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times printed this assertion as if it were an accurate and incontrovertible common reading of the case. Now it is a common misconception.

The truth is, Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in her opinion for the court, banned statistically manipulated numbers for use in redistricting congressional seats. The Supreme Court's opinion affirmed the lower court's decision that the plaintiffs were entitled to relief from all of the harms of which they complained, including "intrastate redistricting," that is the drawing of districts inside a state. The court's decision is simple and clear -- a second set of statistically manipulated numbers the Clinton administration plans to produce cannot be legally used for redistricting congressional seats.

The Clinton spin doctors said that the court's holding that "the Census Act prohibits the proposed uses [emphasis added] of statistical sampling in calculating the population for purposes [emphasis added] of apportionment" is limited to the singular purpose of allocating congressional seats amongst the states. Aside from plain English, this ignores nearly 30 years of precedents in which the court has continuously used the term "apportionment" to include redistricting, as well as the allocation of seats, amongst the states. Clearly, the court was using the term "appointment" in its inclusive plural sense.

The administration bases its entire argument that the opinion is limited to reallocation of seats between the states on one line of the opinion taken out of context. O'Connor stated in her opinion that a 1976 amendment to the Census Act changed an earlier provision to one that "permitted the use of sampling for purposes other than apportionment into one that required that sampling be used if 'feasible.'" This is a very thin reed for the administration to cling to when the language of the entire opinion indicates this sentence has a very different meaning.

In the next paragraph of her opinion, O'Connor lists those non-apportionment purposes when she states: "Although originally established for the sole purpose of apportioning representatives the decennial census has grown considerably over the past 200 years. It now serves as a linchpin of the federal statistical system by collecting data on the characteristics of individuals, households and housing units throughout the country."

While O'Connor specifically lists "intrastate redistricting" as a harm from which plaintiffs are entitled to relief she does not list intrastate redistricting as a use for which sampling is required. Furthermore, O'Connor noted that if the amendment had the effect suggested by the Clinton administration, the Congress would certainly have mentioned in debate "a change [that] would profoundly affect Congress by likely shifting the number of seats apportioned to some states and altering the district lines in many others [emphasis added]."

"It tests the limits of reason to suggest that despite such silence, members of Congress voting for those amendments intended to enact what would arguably be the single most significant change in the census since its inception." O'Connor writes. The Clinton administration, through the Census Bureau, has now decided to "test the limits of reason" and, in effect, defy O'Connor and the Supreme Court.

The law and the Supreme Court's opinion require that a traditional enumerated census be conducted. Political spin and gamesmanship should not compromise the conduct of the census.

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