Case Summary

While preparing to conduct the 2000 decennial census, the Secretary of Commerce announced a plan to utilize two forms of statistical sampling for the first time to address longstanding problems of "undercounting" certain identifiable groups of persons such as minority populations. In early 1998, two federal lawsuits were filed, one in Virginia by a group of citizens and counties in different states and one in Washington D.C. by the U.S. House of Representatives, alleging that the Secretary's statistical sampling plan was prohibited by the Census Act and violated the U.S. Constitution's Enumeration Clause. Both Federal District Courts held that the Census Act prohibited the use of statistical sampling to determine the population for congressional apportionment purposes, enjoined the plan from being implemented, and the two cases were consolidated for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court held for the plaintiffs, ruling that the Secretary's plan to use statistical sampling was prohibited by the Census Act and declining to address the plaintiff's constitutional claims. The Court began by declaring that the plaintiffs had standing to bring this action because there was sufficient evidence to show that under the Secretary's plan, certain states would be "virtually [certain]" to lose a congressional seat during reapportionment, certain votes would become less effective or diluted, and the overall census result would impact intrastate redistricting as well. The Court explained that the Census Act was revised in 1976 to explicitly provide that sampling cannot be used "for the determination of population for purposes of apportionment" of Congressional representatives, and regardless of whether the Secretary's planned statistical sampling was used as a "supplement" or a "substitute," it would nevertheless be used to "determine" the population used for apportionment contrary to the Act. Finding that this conclusion was further supported by the legislative history and debate surrounding the Census Act's 1976 revisions, the Court held the Secretary's plan violated the Census Act and affirmed the lower court's ruling and order barring the plan from being used for the 2000 census.

Significance: The Census Act prohibits the Census Bureau from utilizing statistical sampling when determining population figures that will be used for reapportionment.

Case Library

U.S. Supreme Court - 525 U.S. 316 (1999)