The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ explanation for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census does not match the evidence the court reviewed, which included the steps the department took in coming to that decision, effectively blocking the question from appearing on the upcoming Census for the moment.
“Several points, taken together, reveal a significant mismatch between the Secretary’s decision and the rationale he provided,” the opinion states.
The government’s rationale in including the question was the data was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. However, the court said the rationale seems to have been contrived and wrote in the opinion that the record shows Ross began taking steps to reinstate the question a week into his tenure but did not indicate that it was to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the evidence showed that Ross was determined to reinstate the question from the time he entered office and instructed his staff to make it happen. While the lower court said the evidence established that Ross has made up his mind before the Department of Justice sent a request for census-based citizenship data, justices agreed with the government’s view “to a point” that there was nothing objectionable or surprising in this.
“And yet, viewing the evidence as a whole, we share the District Court’s conviction that the decision to reinstate a citizenship question cannot be adequately explained in terms of DOJ’s request for improved citizenship data to better enforce the VRA,” Roberts wrote.
Justices sent the case back to the lower court and whether the question will be on the 2020 Census is in doubt, The New York Times reported. According to the Times’ explanation of the decision, the district court judge gave the administration time to explain the reason for including the question, which the Supreme Court has affirmed.
Reacting to the news, President Donald Trump tweeted that he had asked lawyers if they can delay the Census until the Supreme Court is given additional information from which it can make a final decision.
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the decision.
“This case has never been about a line on a form,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “It is about whether everyone in America counts. This ruling means they do.”
If the question was included in the 2020 Census, nearly 1.1 million Hispanic residents in Texas would be undercounted, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. The Post’s analysis was done in collaboration with the Harvard Shorestein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. A study published by the center found that adding the question could lead to an undercount of 12 percent of the Hispanic population or 6 million people, the Post writes.
After the Trump administration announced plans in March 2018 to add the question to the 2020 Census, two groups sued and both cases were consolidated by the district court. Since the Census is used to appropriate federal funding and draw political maps, the American Civil Liberties Union argued in its lawsuit against the Commerce Department that an undercount could lead to communities losing money and representation.
“We are encouraged by today’s Supreme Court of the United States ruling,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a joint statement. “Having unburdened the census from the repressive citizenship question, City of Austin and Travis County can move forward with working to obtain as accurate of a count as possible, resulting in additional federal funding for our region, and accurate representation during the redistricting process.
“Citizenship information cannot be used for any other purpose and cannot be shared with any other agency or individual.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner also praised the ruling, saying he was “elated and thankful.”
“Even if a small percentage of the city’s and state’s foreign-born population fails to respond to the census questionnaire, Texas, which is estimated to have 1.65 million undocumented immigrants, stands to lose several billion dollars in federal funds every year starting 2021,” Turner’s statement said in part. “Texas currently receives about $43 billion annually in federal funds tied to census-provided numbers. The previous census added four congressional seats to Texas and is projected to gain two more.”
Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan also commended the ruling.
“Today’s is a victory for Harris County and indeed all the people of the United States,” Ryan said. “With the current climate of fear in our immigrant population, many would have chosen not to participate in the Census rather than answer a citizenship question.”
You can read the full Supreme Court opinion here.