The Trump administration's bid to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census that has been criticized by immigrant groups and also lawmakers received an unexpected blow last week after the Supreme Court said in a ruling that the government’s explanations for the move were implausible and legally inadequate.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, said on June 27 that the explanation offered by the Trump administration for adding the question “appears to have been contrived.”
The supreme Court returned the case to lower courts for further action.
Since 2018, six lawsuits have been brought, challenging reinstatement of the citizenship question amid charges by its critics that the move represents “a raw political effort by the Republican administration to reduce participation in the census by Hispanics and other minorities”, according to Migration Policy institute, headed by Muzaffar Chishti, its executive director.
Last week Roberts wrote in a section of his opinion joined only by the court’s four liberals that agencies must offer “genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public.”
He said, “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.”
Immigrant groups like SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) and DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) welcomed the ruling, calling it a victory for people fighting against the inclusion of the citizenship question in the 2020 Census.
“This is a victory, but it should never have come this far. The looming threat of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census has already posed a chilling effect among immigrant and communities of color who are increasingly being deported, denaturalized, and disenfranchised by this administration,” Lakshmi Sridaran, Interim Co-Executive Director of SAALT told India Abroad.
“Thankfully, in this instance, the Trump Administration’s tactics have been exposed and rejected,” she added.
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, said in a statement that “The decision affirms that the Supreme Court saw through the Trump administration’s deceitful attempts to weaponize the census for partisan purposes and threaten the accuracy of the decennial count.”
Applauding the decision to block the untested citizenship question from the 2020 Census, Gupta said the Commerce Department must move forward to ensure a fair and accurate count and stop their efforts to add this unnecessary question.
Queens, New York-based DRUM that has been agitating against the citizenship question, expressed its satisfaction over the court ruling. “For now, we celebrate! And now shift to ensuring that our communities get counted!” it said in a press statement.
Critics have said the citizenship question will lead many immigrants, especially those without status, and their families not to participate in the census that would make the survey inaccurate and adversely impact the allocation of federal funding and determining the makeup of Congress.
In a report the Washington Post noted last week that Roberts was the only member of the Supreme Court on the term’s closing day to be on the prevailing side in both the census case and the court’s ruling on partisan gerrymandering, adding that it was “emblematic of the chief justice’s new role” at the center of the court, now that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy has retired.
News reports said the ruling effectively invites the administration to make another decision on whether to add the question to the census and to develop a new record justifying that decision.
It's unclear, according to Politico.com and other media reports, whether Commerce Department officials could complete that process and sustain it through further legal challenges in time to get the question onto the 2020 questionnaire.
Traditionally, the Census Bureau has included every person living in the U.S. irrespective of citizenship or immigration status and there had never been any question, whether a person is a citizen or not, since 1950 when that citizenship question was asked for the last time.
At the center of the controversy over the citizenship question is the fear among undocumented people about being caught by law enforcement authorities if they divulged their citizenship status.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who reinstated the citizenship question in March 2018, has defended the question as necessary for reasons like enforcing the Voting Rights Act. Commerce department oversees the U.S. Census Bureau.
According to news reports, Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that the administration’s rationale appeared to be “contrived“ and suggested that Wilbur Ross presented “a misleading reason” for adding the question when he said it had been requested by Justice Department officials to protect the rights of minority voters.
Justice Department lawyers repeatedly told the courts, according to Politico, that census questions needed to be finalized by the end of this month in order to produce print versions of the questionnaire. However, a Census Bureau official said that process could be delayed to as late as October with additional funding for the decennial count.
Trump, who was traveling in Japan for an economic summit when the ruling was released, lashed out against it on Twitter and said he would try to delay the census to get the question on the form.
“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,” the president wrote.
“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. Can anyone really believe that as a great Country, we are not able the [sic] ask whether or not someone is a Citizen. Only in America!”
While the census is mandated by the Constitution, federal law calls for the count to be taken “as of the first day of April” next year.
Gupta said, “But our work doesn’t stop here. The specter of the question has heightened fear and mistrust in communities and discouraged some from participating in the census. All hands are on deck to ensure everyone is counted.”