The Supreme Court on Thursday dealt an unexpected blow to the Trump administration’s move to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, ruling that official explanations for the move were implausible and legally inadequate.
In a surprising decision, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberals on that point. The high court returned the case to lower courts for further action, raising doubts about the administration getting the go-ahead to add the question before upcoming deadlines to finalize the census questionnaire.
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Several lower courts previously found that the administration violated federal regulatory law when it added the question.
The administration argued that citizenship data will assist with anti-discrimination provisions in enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, critics contend that immigrant households could skip the census over fears the information could be used to scrutinize their legal status.
Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that the administration’s rationale appeared to be “contrived“ and suggested that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross presented a misleading rationale for adding the question when he said it had been requested by Justice Department officials to protect the rights of minority voters.
“In the secretary’s telling, Commerce was simply acting on a routine data request from another agency,“ he wrote. “Yet the materials before us indicate that Commerce went to great lengths to elicit the request from DOJ (or any other willing agency). … We are presented, in other words, with an explanation for agency action that is incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency’s priorities and decisionmaking process.“
An undercount could mean a decrease in federal funds to immigrant communities. In addition, states with more foreign-born residents could be allotted a smaller number of representatives in the House.
A working paper released Monday by U.S. Census Bureau researchers found the addition of the citizenship question likely will reduce responses of non-citizen households by 8 percent, a higher rate than the bureau‘s earlier estimate of 5.8 percent. The lower participation would depress the overall response rate and lead to increased costs and lower-quality data, the report found.
A Manhattan-based federal judge in January blocked the addition of the citizenship question, freezing the Commerce Department’s plan to add it to the upcoming census. In the case, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman dismissed the administration’s rationale as a pretext and found it engaged in “egregious” violations of federal regulatory law.
The Trump administration petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the case in an expedited fashion so that the Census Bureau can meet a June 30 deadline to prepare printed questionnaires.
Two other federal judges — in San Francisco and Greenbelt, Md., — blocked the inclusion of the question in the months after Furman’s ruling. In both cases, they said it ran afoul of the enumeration clause of the Constitution.
Following his 2016 presidential victory, Trump claimed without evidence that millions of people voted illegally, tipping the popular vote in favor of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.