Justices refuse to approve citizenship question on census

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Census
OLIVIER DOULIERY/ABACA PRESS/TNS
The Supreme Court said the Trump administration did not adequately explain its reason for adding the question.

BY DAVID G. SAVAGE
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court, delivering a political blow to the Trump administration and a victory for California, on Thursday refused to uphold an effort to ask all households about the citizenship of their residents as part of the 2020 census. They sent the matter back to a lower court for review.

In a ruling by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, the court said the Trump administration did not adequately explain its reason for adding the question. “In these unusual circumstances, the district court was warranted in remanding to the agency and we affirm that disposition,” Roberts said.

The court did not finally decide the issue, but said the Trump administration has so far failed to justify the change.

“Reasoned decision-making under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction,” Roberts said.

Last year, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross decided to add a citizenship question to all forms for the first time since 1950.

VOTER DATA CONCERN

Census experts, citing the climate of fear in immigrant communities, predicted that millions of households will refuse to participate if the question is asked. This in turn could produce a severe under-count in states such as California and Texas, and lead to a loss of government funds and political power for the next decade.

More accurate citizenship data could also encourage some states to redraw their election maps based on the number of eligible citizens, rather than the total population, as is currently used.

Republican strategist Tom Hofeller, who died last year, had advised his clients four years ago that the use of voter data “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic Whites,” and “would clearly be a disadvantage for the Democrats.”

His words came to light recently after his daughter turned over his computer files to lawyers for Common Cause in North Carolina.

Last year, Ross said he had decided to add the citizenship question in response to a request from the Justice Department, citing its duty to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Sometimes, judges and government lawyers need to know if there are enough Black or Latino voters in an area to draw an election district that might elect a minority representative.

JUDGE BLOCKED QUESTION

Voting-rights experts scoffed at that explanation.

They said past administrations had vigorously enforced the voting-rights law for more than 50 years without block-by-block data on the number of residents who were adult citizens. In such cases, judges had relied on data from census surveys.

Lawyers for New York, California and 15 other Democratic-leaning states went to court, alleging Ross’ move was illegal and unconstitutional, motivated by a desire to help Republicans.

In January, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in New York blocked the citizenship question and issued a 277-page opinion describing how Ross had failed to follow the advice of census experts or explain his reasons for making a change that could lead to a severe undercount. Judges in San Francisco and Maryland handed down similar rulings.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the administration’s appeal in the case of Department of Commerce vs. New York on a fast-track basis because the government said it needs to begin printing census forms this summer.

When the case was argued in April, the five conservative justices, all Republican appointees, sounded ready to rule for the government.

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