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Public Citizen Attorneys Vindicate Congressional Right of Access To Executive Branch Information

Jan. 24, 2002

Public Citizen Attorneys Vindicate Congressional Right of Access To Executive Branch Information

Judge Orders Commerce Department to Release Adjusted Census Data

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a lawsuit brought by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and 15 other members of the House Committee on Government Reform, a federal district judge in Los Angeles has ordered the U.S. Commerce Department to release statistically adjusted census data compiled in the course of the 2000 Census. The statistically adjusted data more accurately reflects the actual population by including millions of Americans left out of the official census. Public Citizen represented the lawmakers in the suit.

Although the Census Bureau, a part of the Commerce Department, performed the statistical calculations necessary to arrive at a more accurate count, the Commerce Department refused to make the adjusted census data public for political reasons. Waxman and his 15 colleagues sued to compel release of the information under the “Rule of Seven,” a federal law that requires federal agencies to provide information upon the request of any seven members of the Committee on Government Reform or its counterpart committee in the U.S. Senate.

The government resisted the lawsuit, arguing that the “Rule of Seven” statute does not mean what it says and that even if it does, the court has discretion to ignore it. In a 21-page opinion, Judge Lourdes Baird of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Los Angeles rejected the government’s position. Baird concluded that under the plain language of the statute, “the ‘Seven Member Rule’ requires an executive agency to submit all information requested of it by the Committee relating to all matters within the Committee’s jurisdiction upon the Committee’s request.”

Baird refused to accept the government’s argument that the court had discretion to ignore the law, and held that doing so “would constitute ‘meddling with the internal decisionmaking processes of one of the political branches’ by nullifying congressional intent.”

Baird is the second federal judge to order the Commerce Department to release the adjusted census data. Earlier, a November 2001 district court in Oregon ruled that the data is also available under the Freedom of Information Act. The government is withholding the data while it decides whether to appeal that ruling.

“Now that two courts have ruled that the information must be made public under two different federal laws, we’re hoping that the administration will finally see fit to provide this information to the public,” said Scott Nelson, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group. “Even if the data isn’t included in the official Census, the people are entitled to know how many of us the government really thinks there are.”

Click here to view a copy of the ruling.