WASHINGTON, D.C.--A federal court ruled today that the Census Bureau may not use statistical sampling to perform a national head count in the 2000 census. The decision is a victory for House Republicans who oppose the use of sampling. But observers say this is just one battle, not the war: The Census Bureau is expected to immediately appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
The ruling  is the latest blow in the long fight over how to conduct the once-a-decade count. The Census Bureau says sampling is the only way to cut the skyrocketing cost of the census and to estimate the numbers missed in counting a population that is increasingly mobile and difficult to reach. House Republicans counter that numbers obtained with sampling could be less accurate than with an all-out head count and open to interpretation. The final population numbers are used to divvy up House seats and tens of billions of federal dollars among the states.
One issue in the court case was the following clause of the Census Act: "except for [the national head count,] the Secretary [of Commerce] shall, if he considers it feasible, authorize the use of [sampling]" in Census Bureau activities. Lawyers for the House argued that the language forbids the use of sampling for the national head count. The Census Bureau argued that it merely compelled the use of sampling in other situations and did not forbid it for the national head count. The three-judge panel sided unanimously with House Republicans on this point. "It's an awfully strong opinion," says Rick Bress, a lawyer for the House, "they got it dead on."
The Census Bureau remains undeterred. "This is not new for us," says associate census director John Thompson. "Everyone was suing us during the last census." Some of those court cases interpreted the Census Act to allow the use of sampling for the head count, says TerriAnn Lowenthal, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on census issues. It's an open question how the Supreme Court will read it, she says.