Supreme Court agrees to take up 2020 census case

The Supreme Court said Friday that it would take up a case this term to decide whether the Trump administration can add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

A lower court had blocked the administration from adding the question, holding that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s decision to add the question was unlawful for a “multitude of independent reasons and must be set aside.”

The justices will hear the case in April.

Under normal circumstances, the court does not like to step in before the case has been heard by federal appeals courts. But here, the Justice Department asked the justices to step in now because the deadline for printing the form is the end of June.

Judge Jesse M. Furman of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled on January 15 that Ross’s decision to add the question violated the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal law that governs the way that administrative agencies can propose and establish regulations.

Furman said that the decision ran counter to the evidence in the record and failed to consider important aspects of the issue while also contradicting established procedures.

After the ruling, Solicitor General Noel Francisco asked the justices to jump over the lower courts and take up the case this term so that a final opinion could be rendered by the end of June, which coincides with when the government says the census needs to be printed.

In briefs, the administration argued that questions about citizenship had been asked “of at least a sample of the population” on all but one decennial census from 1820-2000 and stressed that the census is a matter of “massive and lasting consequences” that only occurs once a decade, “with no possibility of a do-over.”

Francisco told the justices that it was the Department of Justice that told Ross the citizenship information would be “critical” to the department’s enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Ross agreed that there might be some households with non-citizens who might refuse to answer the question, but that the value of more accurate data would outweigh the concern.

But the ACLU and a coalition of states challenging the addition of the question say the real reason the question was added was to intimidate immigrant communities and deprive them of political representation.

“Adding a citizenship question to the census would cause incalculable damage to our democracy,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement Friday. “The evidence presented at trial exposed this was the Trump administration’s plan from the get-go. We look forward to defending our trial court victory in the Supreme Court.”

In court briefs, the challengers said that there was no reason for the Supreme Court to take up the lower court’s opinion that blocked the question.

They, however, cautioned that if the Supreme Court determined that the case will “eventually require its review,” the justices should step in now and hear the case to render a decision by the end of the term in June.

Douglas N. Letter, an attorney for the Democrat-led House of Representatives, filed a brief this week in support of the challengers in the case.

In court papers, Letter noted that the House chamber’s “very composition depends on an accurate and complete” count in the census and that census data guides the “annual allocation of hundreds of billions of federal dollars to states and localities.”

He noted that the District Court held that the proposed citizenship question would cause non-citizen households to decline to respond which could “result in an incorrect apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives, harming the chamber’s institutional integrity.”

Earlier in the term, the court had agreed to hear a discovery dispute related to the case concerning whether challengers could move to introduce evidence at trial outside of the official record, including the testimony of Ross.

But after the justices agreed to hear that case, a federal judge in New York struck the citizenship question without relying upon the Ross deposition.

The justices removed the dispute from the calendar pending further developments.