June 28, 2019

SCOTUS says Trump administration can’t add citizenship question to Census—for now

Matthew Reichbach

U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall listen to local elected officials and stakeholders in Los Lunas.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration’s attempt to add a question to the U.S. Census inquiring about respondents’ citizenship—for now. The court released the ruling Thursday morning, on the final day of this year’s term.

The high court instead remanded the question to a district court—and with the U.S. Census Bureau’s own deadline looming, there may not be enough time for the government to get the question added to the 2020 census. The question would depress Hispanic response to the census overall, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The ruling, in which Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by the four liberal members of the court, says it did not believe the rationale the U.S. Commerce Department offered as to why it chose to add the question.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said the department sought to add the question in an effort to better enforce voting rights laws. A majority of the Supreme Court did not buy this claim.

However, the ruling allows the U.S. Commerce Department to add to its explanation on why it chose to add the question, and the June 30 deadline was imposed by the government itself, not by statute.

President Donald Trump said on Twitter after the ruling that he “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.”

The constitution mandates a census that takes place every ten years.

Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine’s School of Law, wrote at Slate that the ruling may include “a rare September argument” in the case.

The case itself stayed in the news even after SCOTUS heard oral arguments earlier this year. The estranged daughter of the late Thomas Hofeller, a Republican redistricting expert well-known for his efforts in gerrymandering to help Republicans keep power, provided files from Hofeller to Common Cause, a group involved in a separate partisan gerrymandering case. The Supreme Court ruled on that case, allowing partisan gerrymandering to continue, Thursday. 

But among the files were justifications for the addition of a citizenship question to the Census. Hofeller sought to allow redistricting not by total population, but instead by American citizens of voting age. 

As the New York Times reported, Hofeller believed this “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites” in Texas.

But the only way for this to take place, Hofeller believed, was with detailed citizenship data, such as what would come from a question on the decennial census.


Opponents of adding the question, who said the question would cause an inaccurate census if non-citizens felt pressured to not participate, celebrated the decision.

“We need to be doing absolutely everything we can to encourage participation in the Census, not discourage it,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said on Twitter, calling it “very promising news.”

Lujan Grisham and state legislators allocated $3.5 million towards efforts to ensure as many New Mexicans are counted as possible. In addition to providing data for the next round of redistricting, census results will also help allocate federal funds for various programs.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich said the Supreme Court “rejected the Administration’s spurious rationale for moving forward with a citizenship question that could have resulted in an undercounting of the population” and that the Trump administration “should drop the question and move forward.”

And U.S. Sen. Tom Udall called the attempt to add the citizenship question ” nothing more than a partisan ploy to intimidate immigrant communities.”

He warned, however, that the fight “isn’t over.”

“We must stay vigilant to make sure everyone is counted and that New Mexico – one of the hardest states to count – gets its fair share,” Udall said.

Peter Simonson, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, called the ruling, “a victory for communities of color and democracy itself.” 

“The Supreme Court’s ruling thwarts Trump’s attempts to weaponize the census and affirms every person in New Mexico and across our country should be counted,” Simonson said.

And Thomas A. Saenz, the president and general counsel of MALDEF, said, “Today, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ruled that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied to Congress and the public about the reasons he chose to add an unwarranted citizenship question to Census 2020, and he now must try, in very short order, to fix his mess.”

U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham told NM Political Report last month that the bureau would be “ready to proceed either way, consistent with the court’s decision.”