Millions of dollars of federal aid to New York and the state's clout in the House will be at stake when the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether the 2000 census can use statistical sampling to develop a more accurate count of America's population.
The high court heard oral arguments Monday in two cases involving the census sampling issue, which pits the Republican congressional majority against the Clinton administration. Republicans want to continue basing the census entirely on an actual count, while Democrats and demographers say that using statistical estimates -- in addition to the actual count -- would ensure that millions of poor minority residents would not get ignored.
Since federal funding formulas and congressional district lines are based on the census, the decision in the cases -- which is expected by March -- will have huge ramifications.
For New York, the ramifications will be dire if the high court rules that the Census Bureau cannot use census sampling techniques, said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-Manhattan, who has been leading the fight for statistical sampling.
"We know that the traditional method will result in an inaccurate count," since it will miss countless minorities and poor people in New York and other heavily urbanized states, she said. That, in turn, will mean that New York loses out on millions of dollars in federal aid for welfare, health care, urban development and other programs.
In addition, Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, noted that if sampling is not used, New York could lose two or three seats in the House starting in 2002, whereas it would be likely to lose only one if sampling is used.
"We will lose both money and power if the Republicans win this argument," LaFalce said.
So far, though, the Republicans are winning.
In August, a lower federal court invalidated the Census Bureau's sampling plan, saying it violates the 1976 Census Act.
During Monday's oral argument, several conservative justices appeared uncomfortable with the idea of allowing the Census Bureau to do anything other than an actual count of the population.
Noting that the Constitution calls for an "actual enumeration" of the population, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said: "Most people would think that actual enumeration means a count."
Justice Antonin Scalia expressed concern that anything other than an actual count would damage the credibility of the census. "What sort of process would be excluded (in statistical sampling)?" he asked. "Rolling the dice?"
Arguing for citizens who sued to stop the sampling procedure, attorney Michael A. Carvin said the case is open-and-shut.
"If the Constitution calls for an actual enumeration, clearly the only process that was contemplated is counting," he said.
But the Clinton administration countered by arguing that a real actual enumeration -- that is, an accurate count -- can best be obtained by combining a count with new statistical estimates.
"The term actual enumeration refers to a good-faith effort to determine the number of persons in each state," and does not specify any particular methodology, said Solicitor General Seth Waxman.
Several justices appeared uncomfortable with their role in the case, which the House forced by joining those private citizens in suing the Clinton administration.
Justice David H. Souter said the case could prompt Congress to routinely look to the courts to act as referee between the legislative and executive branches.
"I don't like anyone injecting us into a battle between the other two branches of government."