Wisconsin v. City of New York

RESPONDENT:City of New York
LOCATION:North Carolina General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 94-1614
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 517 US 1 (1996)
ARGUED: Jan 10, 1996
DECIDED: Mar 20, 1996

Drew S. Days, III – Argued the cause on behalf of the federal petitioners
James E. Doyle – Argued the cause for the state petitioners
Robert S. Rifkind – Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

Under the Constitution’s Census Clause, Congress is vested with the responsibility of conducting an “actual enumeration” of the American public every ten years, primarily for the purpose of aportioning congressional representation among the states. Congress delegated this responsibility to the Secretary of Commerce who, in the 1990 census, decided not to use a statistical correction, known as the post-enumeration survey (PES), to adjust an undercount in the initial population count. Acting on behalf of several citizens’ groups, states, and cities, Wisconsin challenged the Secretary’s decision not to use the PES; claiming that it resulted in an undercounting of certain identifiable minority groups.


Did the decision of the Secretary of Commerce not to use the PES in the 1990 census violate the constitutional right of certain minorities to be counted?

Media for Wisconsin v. City of New York

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 10, 1996 in Wisconsin v. City of New York

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 20, 1996 in Wisconsin v. City of New York

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 94-1614, Wisconsin versus the City of New York and companion cases.

In preparing to conduct the 1990 Census, the Secretary of Commerce determined that past censuses which were essentially headcount consistently had undercounted the actual population and that some minorities had been undercounted at a greater rate than the rest of the population.

As part of an effort to improve the quality of the 1990 Census, the Secretary considered the possibility of using a statistical adjustment of the actual count in order to correct for the undercount.

But he decided against that possibility after deciding that he could not be certain but the statistical adjustment would improve the quality of the Census.

Several cities and individuals sued arguing that Secretary’s decision not to use the statistical adjustment was unconstitutional.

The District Court rejected their argument but a divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the District Court.

It noted that the Constitution requires Census data to be used to apportion members of the house of representative and then looking at this Court’s decisions requiring States to adhere that the principle of one person one vote decided that the Secretary’s decision not to use the adjustment infringe on the rights of individuals to have their votes counted equally.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse.

We hold that the reasoning underlying our one person one vote cases does not apply to the Federal Government’s decisions regarding the conduct of the Census.

The Constitution vests Congress with virtually unlimited discretion over the conduct of the Census and through the Census Act, Congress has delegated its broad authority over the Census to the Secretary of Commerce.

The Secretary’s conduct of the census is constitutional so long as there is a reasonable relationship to the accomplishment of an actual count of the population.

Here the Secretary based his decision against statistical adjustment on three conclusions: First, he decided it was more important for the Census to accurately measure the proportion of people in different areas than it was for the Census to accurately measure the total number or people in the United States.

Second, he found that statistical adjustment of the preliminary Census data was something that had never been tried before, and finally he determined that statistical adjustment would not improve the distributive accuracy of the Census.

We found the first state conclusion consistent with the constitutional purpose of the Census, and we find the second and third conclusions to be reasonable.

Therefore we hold the Secretary’s decision not statistically adjust the 1990 Census is constitutional.

The opinion is unanimous.