In a surprising move Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked the Trump Administration’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
It wasn’t the citizenship question in and of itself that gave the high court pause, but rather the rationale behind it, which Chief Justice John Roberts wrote “seems to have been contrived.”
Attorneys for the Trump Administration told justices it wanted the citizenship question included in the 2020 Census to help enforce federal voting rights laws.
“This rationale is difficult to accept,” Roberts wrote in the 5-4 opinion. “One obvious problem is that the DOJ provided no basis to believe that more precise data would in fact help with Voting Rights Act enforcement.”
The case was remanded back to the Department of Commerce to allow them an opportunity to offer a more adequate explanation. President Donald Trump was not pleased with the outcome.
“Seems totally ridiculous that our government, and indeed Country, cannot ask a basic question of Citizenship in a very expensive, detailed and important Census, in this case for 2020,” he tweeted. “I have asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long, until the United States Supreme Court is given additional information from which it can make a final and decisive decision on this very critical matter.”
It’s not clear what the long term ramifications of Thursday’s ruling will be, or if Trump’s request to delay printing Census questionnaires will be granted, but immigration advocates and liberal-leaning politicians celebrated it as a win.
“The census should not be political, and the Supreme Court made the right choice in this case,” said North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein. “North Carolinians deserve their fair share of representation in Congress and of federal dollars whether for roads, schools, or healthcare.”
In April, Stein joined a coalition of 18 states, 16 local governments, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors in filing a brief at the high court challenging the citizenship question.
The census occurs every 10 years and provides a count of all individuals living in the U.S. The last census in 2010 asked 10 questions about characteristics such as age, sex and homeownership status. There hasn’t been a broad citizenship question since at least 1950.
North Carolina receives $16.29 billion annually in federal funding from Census-guided programs, including school lunches, Medicaid and Section 8 housing.
Chavi Koneru, executive director of North Carolina Asian Americans Together, said it was hopeful to see the U.S. Supreme Court question the Trump Administration, but it did not shut the door completely to its use in the future.
“From the drawing of district maps to the allocation of federal funds, adding the citizenship question on the
Census 2020 questionnaire could have a significant impact on Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities in North Carolina,” she said. “The harm from the question’s inclusion would be universal, with communities that are already at greater risk of being undercounted – including people of color, young children, and low-income rural and urban residents – suffering the most.”
Koneru pointed out that the move to include the citizenship question has already spread fear among immigrant communities, both documented and undocumented, throughout the state and nation.
She cited a Census study in 2018 that reported AAPIs are the most concerned among all racial and ethnic groups about the information from the Census being used against them.
“This concern is not without precedence – it has been confirmed that the 1940 Census was used to identify and forcibly relocate Japanese Americans into internment camps,” Koneru said. “In the current political environment, immigrants are being targeted by policies ranging from the Muslim Ban to mass deportations, detentions, and even de-naturalizations.
“Worst fears are realized when federal agents invade homes, schools, and places of worship; and families are torn apart both at the U.S. border and in the heart of communities. This fear will discourage many from participating in Census 2020 altogether, leading to an inaccurate count of the AAPI population in the state.”
It wasn’t clear how the high court would come down on the issue, since newly discovered documents from the late renowned GOP mapmaker Thomas Hofeller cast doubt on the Trump Administration’s justification for including a citizenship question in its national head count.
The conservative majority on the high court seemed poised to uphold the legality of the citizenship question, but the evidence from Hofeller – found in documents turned over by his daughter after his death – contradicted the Trump Administration’s testimony and caused a flurry of action in the lower courts.
None of it appeared to have played a role in Thursday’s opinion.
Still, in a statement after the ruling, the North Carolina advocacy group El Pueblo wrote the new evidence was further proof the citizenship question was designed to “intimidate immigrants and push them further away from crucial funding and resources that help create safe and sustainable communities.”
“In collaboration with other groups, El Pueblo will remain vigilant in calling out any future attempt by the Trump deportation machine to revive the citizenship question and to destroy the lives of families and loved ones,” the release states.
The documents revealed for the first time how Hofeller orchestrated the addition of the citizenship question and the Justice Department’s Voting Rights Act rationale for it. The documents further show that Hofeller concluded in an unpublished 2015 study that the citizenship question would significantly harm the political power of Latino communities and be “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.”
The government stated in a letter to justices the new evidence should not have any effect on the merits of the case and wrote that it was “based on a speculative conspiracy theory that is unsupported by the evidence and legally irrelevant to demonstrating that Secretary Ross acted with a discriminatory intent.”
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals sent a related Maryland case back to the district court to consider the new evidence, and it also is considering whether to block the government in the meantime from printing the Census questionnaires, which has to start July 1.
If the Supreme Court is going to weigh in again, the Department of Commerce must “offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public,” Roberts wrote.
The left-leaning justices on the court joined in the key part of his opinion remanding the case back for further explanation.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent that the other conservative justices joined.
“For the first time ever, the Court invalidates an agency action solely because it questions the sincerity of the agency’s otherwise adequate rationale,” Thomas wrote.
The law, he later adds, requires a much more impartial approach – one that grants the Executive branch a presumption of regularity.
“The Court pays only lipservice to this principle,” he wrote. “But, the evidence falls far short of supporting its decision. The Court, I fear, will come to regret inventing the principles it uses to achieve today’s result.”
The Campaign Legal Center (CLC) hopes it doesn’t. The group, which represents the plaintiffs in the case, speculated that Department Secretary Wilbur Ross would be unable to provide a legitimate rationale for the question, and it would therefore not become part of the Census next year.
“We applaud the U.S. Supreme Court for stopping the citizenship question in its tracks,” said Paul Smith, vice president at the CLC. “An addition of the Census question would have chilled minority participation in the 2020 Census and made it less accurate. The quality of the Census has been protected today from the hasty addition of a politically motivated question. It is of the utmost importance that the Census reflect all communities living in the country.”
Tomas Lopez of Democracy North Carolina agreed, and reiterated the importance of the issue to North Carolinians.
“The Census sits at the core of representative American government,” he wrote. “It supports implementation of civil rights laws that protect voting rights, equal employment opportunities, and other pillars of our democracy.
“A citizenship question would undermine efforts to ensure a complete and accurate count of every person in the United States – a constitutional requirement. The Department of Commerce should take this ruling as a signal to back off of its plans.”