The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked, for now, the Trump administration’s plan to include a question on the 2020 census that inquires about a person’s citizenship status.
The court said the administration’s explanation for adding such a question is insufficient, and sent it back to the lower courts for further consideration. The ruling marks a setback for the administration, but the issue is not yet resolved.
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The ruling said that the court was presented “with an explanation for agency action that is incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency’s priorities and decisionmaking process.”
This case was one of the most closely watched cases of the Court’s term, Department of Commerce v. New York, and explored exactly what led to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross deciding to include the question in the first place.
The ruling comes after a ruling by the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York, which said the question was improper.
At issue was whether Ross acted within his authority when he added the question. More specifically, there were questions as to whether he violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which sets standards for how federal agencies make changes, or the Enumeration Clause of the Constitution, which says that congressional representatives are apportioned to states based on their populations’ “numbers” and “persons.”
Opponents of the question feared that by asking people about their citizenship status, immigrants may not want to respond and be counted in the census. This would result in official population numbers that are lower than they truly are, which in turn could yield less federal funding and fewer congressional seats in districts with high immigrant populations. Those districts tend to favor Democrats.
The Trump administration claimed that the question is necessary because it would help with enforcing Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which deals with voting practices that discriminate based on race. The idea behind this is that having this data would help prevent the drawing of congressional maps in ways that discriminate against minority citizens of voting age.
Earlier in June, the House Oversight Committee voted to hold Secretary Ross and Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt after they did not turn over documents pertaining to a committee request for records related to the addition of the citizenship question. President Trump had invoked executive privilege to keep the records away from the House. The House has yet to take any further steps in contempt proceedings.
There was a flurry of court activity related to the citizenship question in the days leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision.
On Monday, a U.S. District Court judge in Maryland issued a ruling stating that the question raises potential Equal Protection and civil rights issues. The same court had previously ruled that the citizenship question also violated the Administrative Procedure Act and the Enumeration Clause.
The earlier ruling found that the Voting Rights Act had been used as a pretext for the citizenship question, but did not determine what the actual reason may have been. The new ruling is based on new evidence of the influence Dr. Thomas Hofeller had on adding the question.
The court’s ruling discussed how Hofeller appeared to have been involved in creating the supposed pretext of the Voting Rights Act, and that Hofeller’s files include a study that shows that adding a citizenship question to the census would be “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.”
The ACLU included that ruling in Supreme Court filing asking the justices to take it into account and letting the case go back to a lower court for additional fact-finding.
On Tuesday, the government sent a letter to the Supreme Court, claiming that the Maryland District Court’s order was “based on a speculative conspiracy theory that is unsupported by the evidence and legally irrelevant.” That same day, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal granted a motion to send the case back down so that the Equal Protection and civil rights issues could be considered.
The government then sent another letter, encouraging the Supreme Court to consider those additional issues. Solicitor General Noel Francisco said that the government needs the issue settled so they can finalize the census questionnaire by a June 30 deadline. Civil rights groups fired back saying that the Equal Protection and civil rights issues had not been presented in briefs or oral arguments before the Supreme Court, and that the census deadline could be pushed off to Oct. 30, according to the Census Bureau’s chief scientist.
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The census did include a citizenship question of sorts in the past, but not since 1950. Then, people were asked about their place of birth, and if it was outside the United States they were then asked if they had been naturalized.
President Trump tweeted in April that the Census Report would be “meaningless” without the citizenship question.
Fox News’ Shannon Bream and Bill Mears contributed to this report.