Supreme Court hears key Census case
- By Chase Gunter
- Apr 23, 2019
The Supreme Court took up the lawsuit challenging the legality of the Trump administration's addition of the citizenship question to the census mailed to every household in the country, a major case that will have enduring implications for representation and billions of dollars in federal funding.
Since Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross's March 2018 decision to reinstate a citizenship question to the short-form decennial census, local governments, civil rights groups, former census directors and the bureau's own advisors have objected to the question, and a slew of lawsuits have been filed to block its addition.
In the oral arguments April 23, questions to the attorneys appeared split along ideological lines, with conservative justices seeming more receptive to arguments supporting the addition of the question than liberal justices.
The court is expected to render a decision on the question before its recess at the end of June. Bureau officials have said they need an answer by June 30 in order to prepare the printing of all the census forms needed.
Solicitor General Noel Francisco acknowledged to the court that while there were downsides to adding a question on citizenship to the 2020 census, Ross ultimately concluded that "the benefits outweighed the costs."
The government argued that the decision was within Ross's authority, and that the claim adding the citizenship question would negatively impact response rates was inconclusive.
"It boils down to whether the secretary's judgment is a reasonable one," Francisco said.
To date, three district courts have disagreed, finding Ross's addition of the citizenship question to the decennial forms illegal.
Justice Elena Kagan said that while Ross does have the authority to make such a decision, even in the face of his advisors and scientists, he "needs reasons."
Ross's justification cited a Department of Justice request to add the question in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act, a claim that emails and depositions about the planning of the question later conflicted with.
"You can't read this record without sensing this need was a contrived one," she said.
Additionally, the government acknowledged that career staff did not want to move forward with the citizenship question.
"There's no question the bureau staff preferred not to have this question on the census," Francisco said.
The bureau has acknowledged it cannot quantify the exact impact of the question, but several surveys, including those conducted by Census, have indicated strongly negative attitudes toward the question, and that the question may be a "major barrier" to operations.
New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood made the case that the question would not give better citizenship data and would depress response rates in a manner that would have a "disproportionate" effect on minority groups.
"When there is this much uncertainty, then it is arbitrary and capricious" to risk the accuracy of the constitutionally mandated enumeration, she said, echoing the ruling of Southern District of New York Judge Jesse Furman.
The timing of the Supreme Court case and its ultimate decision comes amid the bureau's biggest ramp up in preparations for its most technologically advanced population count to date.
Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.
Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.
Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.
Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter