WASHINGTON - The Constitution does not require the federal government to make the census as accurate as possible, and imposes no duty on officials to adjust population figures later to make up for failing to count many minorities, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday.
In a major setback for the nation's cities, the court undid the victory the cities had won in a federal appeals court in 1994. The appeals court decision would have required the government to make a statistical "fix" in the 1990 population total, or explain away the need to do so.
As a result, there will be no shift in seats in the House until after another census in 2000, no altering of the states' votes in the Electoral College when it meets in January, and no reallocation of up to $100 billion a year in federal money passed out to states based on population figures.
Had the ruling gone the other way, Arizona and California each would have gained a seat in the House and in the Electoral College, and Penn- sylvania and Wisconsin would have lost one apiece. Some state and local legislative redistricting might have been upset.
In every census since 1940, blacks, Hispanics and members of other minority groups have been undercounted far more than non-Hispanic whites have been, because census-takers face difficulties finding many poor and minority individuals, including homeless people, in urban areas.
For the nation, yesterday's ruling means that the 1990 population will stand at 249,632,692 a figure that appears to mean that an estimated 5,269,917 people were not counted by census-takers.
For Baltimore, the ruling means that the city population for 1990 will remain at 736,014, according to census data; an estimated 23,113 people in the city were left out. For Maryland, the 1990 population will stay at 4,781,468, a total that omitted an estimated 100,856 people.
There is no reliable estimate of what the ruling will cost Baltimore and Maryland in potential federal money. The city had joined the constitutional challenge to the U.S. Census Bureau's method of making the 1990 count and to the bureau's refusal to adjust the count to cure an acknowledged undercounting, mostly of nonwhites.
"It's a very disappointing decision from the city's standpoint," said Charles C. Graves III, Baltimore's planning director. The census, he said, failed to account for many homeless and transient families, and did not accurately reflect the population in poor and minority neighborhoods.
"Based on our calculations, we had felt there was a significant undercount," he said. "It does have an impact on federal dollars as it relates to population and low-income areas. We feel there definitely could be an impact."
For Baltimore and other cities, however, the ruling's effects may not survive beyond the current decade. The Census Bureau has announced plans to change census-taking methods for the count in 2000.
Everett M. Ehrlich, commerce undersecretary for economic affairs, said yesterday that the bureau hopes to eliminate entirely the undercount of members of minority groups in the next census. Several changes, he said, will improve census-takers' chances of reaching people in low-income areas and getting their cooperation, and there will be new sampling techniques.
Those plans, however, are already encountering some opposition in the Republican-controlled Congress. An upward adjustment of population totals to take account of the uncounted tends to favor Democrats more than Republicans, because the main gains would have come in Democratic strongholds in cities.
In fact, the prospect of a big Democratic gain from a statistical fix in the 1990 census led the Bush administration to decide in 1991 not to make the adjustment.
The Supreme Court apparently had little difficulty reaching its decision to leave the census largely to the government's discretion. Aside from the unanimous vote, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the opinion's author, took only 10 weeks to prepare the ruling a short time for a significant constitutional case.
Going far toward eliminating the court fights that have followed most of the modern census-takings, the court said it was largely up to Congress and the Census Bureau to decide how to count the nation's people.
The chief justice's opinion had these key ingredients:
The Constitution's call for an "actual enumeration" of the people does not require the government to "conduct a census that is as accurate as possible." The court conceded that no census in 200 years had succeeded in counting all the people.
The Constitution gives Congress "virtually unlimited discretion" to control how the census is done a discretion Congress has passed on to the Census Bureau.
Nothing in the Constitution requires Congress or census-takers to make an adjustment in the count to make up for the failure to count members of minority groups, and the failure to do so does not deprive such persons of their right to be counted.
At the same time, the court said it was not deciding for now whether the Census Bureau is forbidden by the Constitution to make an adjustment if Congress and the bureau agree to do so.
Pub Date: 3/21/96