BUREAUCRACY WATCH : Numbers Game

To U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall, California's request to get all of the federal government's census data is an open-and-shut case.

Washington, she ruled this week, must open its books because no government can shut off information that goes to the heart of Americans' right to elect their government.

The U.S. Census Bureau already has said it probably missed on the order of 5 million people in its decennial head count last year. About 1 million of those would be in California. The bureau has surveyed all 50 states to provide data for adjusting the count.

The survey used the same generally reliable sampling techniques that produce the daily public opinion polls that give politicians a good sense of what Americans think about an issue.

But Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher is sitting on the survey data. He says there is no evidence that the survey data is any more valid than the head count.

Judge Marshall ruled that the decision could mean "great, immediate and irreparable injury" for California and ordered the information released at once. Washington has appealed, stalling the release.

Marshall's ruling should stand. These are not military secrets, after all. If anything they are quite the opposite. They are the guidelines that must be used for reapportioning congressional districts and the state Senate and Assembly and for delivering scarce budget resources to people who most need them. There is hardly any issue more in the public's interest.

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