California's chances of winning an extra seat in Congress and a slightly greater share of federal funds because of a census readjustment looked dim Wednesday after arguments in the Supreme Court.
The justices were highly skeptical of pleas on behalf of New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago that their 1990 census totals should be revised to make up for a probable undercount of blacks and Latinos.
The Constitution calls for "an actual enumeration. . . . It doesn't say imaginary enumeration," Justice Antonin Scalia said.
Across the bench, the justices indicated that they were inclined to defer to the Commerce Department's handling of the census, rather than "take sides in a statistical dispute involving statisticians," as U.S. Solicitor Gen. Drew S. Days III put it.
If so, that would prove to be a political setback for the nation's major cities, as well as states with a high proportion of minorities.
Days told the court that the 1990 census was "98.4% accurate." It missed, he said, about 5 million people in a population of about 250 million.
But the missing were disproportionately black or Latino. The Census Bureau estimated that it missed about 5% of blacks and Latinos and that the undercount hurt urban areas, especially New York and Los Angeles.
But statisticians disagreed on whether they could devise a formula that would revise the actual counts fairly.
In 1991, the George Bush administration's Commerce secretary, Robert A. Mosbacher, decided to stick with the actual counts, rather than adjust the numbers to compensate for the undercount.
That decision was roundly criticized by Democrats, including Ronald H. Brown, then chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Brown, now the Clinton administration's secretary of Commerce, through Days, is urging the high court to uphold Mosbacher's decision.
"The true population of the United States is unknown and perhaps unknowable," Days said, and courts should not second-guess the government's decision to use the actual counts.
Last year, a U.S. appeals court in New York revived a lawsuit challenging Mosbacher's decision. It strongly implied that the government must readjust the numbers to make up for "the disproportionate counting of minorities."
Census experts said an adjustment would probably give California and Arizona each an extra seat in Congress, while Wisconsin and Pennsylvania would lose a seat. The adjustment would also shift more money toward California and toward cities such as Los Angeles.
But the justices, who agreed to hear the government's appeal of the New York ruling (U.S. Department of Commerce vs. New York, 94-1985) gave all indication that they will reverse it.