Supreme Court blocks citizenship question on census

The justices said the Trump administration’s explanation for the question was insufficient.

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Outside of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

In this Oct. 4, 2018, file photo, The U.S. Supreme Court is seen at sunset in Washington.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday maintained a hold on the Trump administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, and the question’s opponents say there’s no time to revisit the issue before next week’s scheduled start to the printing of census forms.

But President Donald Trump said on Twitter after the decision that he’s asked 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 the issue. Under federal law the census must begin on April 1, 2020.

“Can anyone really believe that as a great Country we are not able to ask whether or not someone is a Citizen,” Trump wrote. “Only in America!”

The high court did not say the question could not be asked, just that the administration’s current justification for adding the question was insufficient.

Opponents say adding the question has the potential to affect the amount of federal money that goes to each state and their representation in Congress. The Census Bureau said in a brief statement only that the decision is “currently being reviewed.”

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Dale Ho, who argued against the citizenship question’s addition at the Supreme Court said “there really, really is not time” for the administration to revisit adding the question.

The decision came on the last day the court was issuing opinions before a summer break.

The Census Bureau’s own experts predict that millions of Hispanics and immigrants would go uncounted if the census asked everyone if he or she is an American citizen. And immigrant advocacy organizations and Democratic-led states, cities and counties that challenged the question’s addition argue it is intended to discourage the participation of minorities, primarily Hispanics, who tend to support Democrats, from filling out census forms.

Democratic-led states said they would get less federal money and fewer seats in Congress if the census asks about citizenship because people with noncitizens in their households would be less likely to fill out their census forms.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the Supreme Court’s opinion in the census case, with the four liberal justices joining him in the relevant part of the outcome. Roberts said the Trump administration’s explanation for wanting to add the question “seems to have been contrived.”

The Trump administration had said the question was being added to aid in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters’ access to the ballot box. But the Justice Department had never previously sought a citizenship question in the 54-year history of the landmark voting rights law.

Roberts wrote that evidence showed that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “was determined to reinstate a citizenship question from the time he entered office.” The Commerce Department oversees the Census Bureau.

Roberts added that there is “a significant mismatch between the decision the secretary made and the rationale he provided.” The court sent the issue of adding the citizenship question back to administration officials.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she’s relieved that the citizenship question that could have cost an already shrinking Chicago dearly in the U.S. Census has been blocked—at least for now.

“We’ve been very concerned about having the citizenship question on the Census. We believe that would have a tremendous, chilling effect,” the mayor said.

“All of these things that are being focused and targeted towards immigrant communities [make] it more difficult for us to be able to reach out to those communities, for them to feel safe in our city from Census-taking for sure. Also, getting access to care, calling the police when there’s a need for emergency response. All of those things have a chilling effect and a ripple effect across those communities.”

Lightfoot said she was out in Little Village on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon and saw “significantly” smaller crowds in, what is an “incredibly important area of commerce.”

That’s apparently because President Donald Trump had threatened to initiate mass raids to round up illegal immigrants, only to call them off and order a two-week reprieve that the mayor has called a “sword of Damocles” over Chicago’s head.

“This affects every aspect of our entire life — not just for those communities. So, I’m grateful that the Supreme Court took this step. But, I’ll have to read the particulars to know what the implications are,” said Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor.

“If they remanded it to the district court, it means that the litigation is not over, unfortunately.”

It’s not clear whether the Trump administration could try again to add the question, providing a fuller explanation of the reasons for doing so. Opponents said that can’t be done quickly and that the problems identified by the court could be hard to overcome, but they didn’t rule out that the administration might try.

Evidence uncovered since the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in late April supports claims that the citizenship question is part of a broader Republican effort to accrue political power at the expense of minorities, the challengers say.

The Constitution requires a census count every 10 years. A question about citizenship had once been common, but it has not been widely asked since 1950. At the moment, the question is part of a separate detailed annual sample of a small chunk of the population, the American Community Survey.

Fran Spielman contributed to this report.

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