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Justice Dept. won't fight census ruling

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2002

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.

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 social service programs.

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

Opponents, 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.

Last month's court ruling required only that the Census Bureau release the figures. The judges rejected 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.

However, the court did not compel the bureau to use them to determine how federal aid is disbursed.

The Census Bureau had no immediate comment on the Justice Department decision. However, the agency previously has said it might use adjusted data in the future.

"The deadline is tonight and we are not filing anything," said Charles Miller, spokesman for the Justice Department's civil division, said late yesterday afternoon.

While the amount of money distributed by the federal government to each state would not change because of the decision, state and local governments would have the option, if their laws allow, to use the adjusted numbers for distributing tax dollars within the state for Medicaid, foster care and other social service programs.

A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling bars the use of adjusted numbers for reapportioning congressional seats.

After census takers and questionnaires were sent out in 2000, the Census Bureau used mathematical formulas to estimate how many minorities, children and others might have been missed in inner cities, rural areas and other places. Those figures are often called the "undercount."

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