U.S. Supreme Court delays Census citizenship question

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday delayed the addition of a citizenship to the 2020 Census, calling the justification the Trump administration offered for including the question “contrived.”

In a complicated decision regarding the Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the upcoming census, the high court agreed with a lower court to send the issue back to the Commerce Department, citing problems with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ rationale for adding the question. 

“The reasoned explanation requirement of administrative law, after all, is meant to ensure that agencies offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case.”

“It is hardly improper for an agency head to come into office with policy preferences and ideas, discuss them with affected parties, sound out other agencies for support, and work with staff attorneys to substantiate the legal basis for a preferred policy,” Roberts wrote elsewhere in the opinion. 

But, he added, “Altogether, the evidence tells a story that does not match the Secretary’s explanation for his decision. … The explanation provided here was more of a distraction.” 

Ross has said that the plan to revive a citizenship question on the 2020 census was an attempt to bolster the Voting Rights Act. But the Supreme Court majority wrote, “Several points, taken together, reveal a significant mismatch between the Secretary’s decision and the rationale he provided. The record shows that he began taking steps to reinstate the question a week into his tenure, but gives no hint that he was considering VRA enforcement.” 

The government has not included a question about citizenship in the decennial Census since 1950, and government experts predicted that including the question in the 2020 Census would cause an undercount of some 6.5 million people.

Additionally, recently discovered evidence from computer files of a deceased Republican redistricting expert indicate that the citizenship question was key in a GOP strategy to draw gerrymandered congressional and legislative maps that heavily favored Republicans at the expense of minorities, particularly Hispanics.

The delay marks at least a partial victory for critics of adding the question, who argued that it would deter people — particularly immigrants — from responding to the census, which could drastically skew the count. Census numbers are used to determine everything from how congressional districts are divvied up to where the government spends cash for programs like Head Start and Medicare.

Mesa Mayor John Giles this month said he hoped the citizenship question wasn’t added to the Census because his city would face ‘a real threat‘ if an undercount led to less state and federal funds, which would decrease the amount of money available for public safety and other services.

And a recent study from Harvard University estimated that the undercount would be roughly 5%, with Arizona predicted to be the state with the largest undercount because of the state’s large Latino population. A subsequent analysis of the study by The Washington Post found that Arizona likely would miss out on adding a 10th U.S. House seat if the citizenship question was included.

The practical effect of Thursday’s ruling was not immediately clear. The Supreme Court left open a path for the administration to provide adequate justification for including the citizenship question, but there may not be enough time. Census forms are expected to be printed next month.

U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, praised the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“Today’s decision affirms what we have known all along: the Administration’s plan to add a citizenship question was ill-conceived, and officials have lacked candor about their intentions. That is why, for more than a year now, we have fought this question, and we will continue to fight for a fair Census until the count is complete,” he said in a written statement.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who signed onto an amicus brief in the Supreme Court arguments opposing the citizenship question, said Thursday’s ruling was the right thing both for the nation and for Arizona.

“An undercount would set off a chain of events that would directly jeopardize communities and programs in Arizona,” Hobbs said. “Every person should count, and that is the bottom line.”

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.
Jim Small
Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications, the Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report. Under his guidance, the Capitol Times won numerous state, regional and national awards for its accountability journalism and probing investigations into state government operations.


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