Supreme Court blocks citizenship question on 2020 census for now

Mark Sherman and Jessica Gresko
Associated Press
The empty courtroom is seen at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington

Washington — In a surprising move, the Supreme Court on Thursday kept the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census for now, 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. A former director of the Census Bureau said he believed Congress would have to change the law for the count to be delayed.

The issue of whether to add the citizenship question to the census is a politically charged one. Democratic cities and states who oppose adding it argue that they’d get less federal money and fewer representatives in Congress if the question is asked because it would discourage the participation of minorities, primarily Hispanics, who tend to support Democrats.

Some Michigan officials and civil rights advocates welcomed the court's move, saying excluding some from the count "undermines our democracy."

Agustin Arbulu, director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, called the ruling "a short-term win."

"However, the court also found that the Department of Commerce has a right to reinstate the question if it can provide adequate justification," he said. ... "Accordingly, it is imperative that we continue pushing, educating and devoting resources to make sure that all Michigan inhabitants are counted and especially hard-to-count individuals, estimated to be 16% of Michigan’s population."

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint,  said in a statement that "the census plays a critical role in ensuring that every community receives proper representation in government."

"When families are excluded or intimidated from participating in the census, it undermines our democracy and hurts our economy," he said.

The result of possible under-counting would have affected communities in Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties, where nearly 200,000 responders to the U.S. Census American Community Survey in 2017 were foreign-born and non-citizens.

Officials in Detroit, which has large concentrations of immigrants, including Latino, and Yemeni and other Arabic-speaking communities, have said that for every person missed in the census, the city would lose an estimated $1,800 in federal funding every year for the next decade.

"Many city, county, state and federal district lines would be drawn inaccurately and would not reflect actual populations if millions of undocumented immigrants do not participate in the census," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Thursday.

"In addition, the financial resources distributed by the federal government would have been lower to many cities and states, affecting everything from infrastructure to healthcare."

In April, Detroit launched its 2020 Census campaign that works to educate the public on the effect that the census will have on programs such as Medicaid, Title I and food programs.

City officials have been recruiting messengers to reach immigrant populations "and to talk about how the information is confidential, and really sending those messages home so that when the census comes, people get why it’s important to fill it out and how it’s important," said Victoria Kovari, Detroit's 2020 census campaign executive director. "Every time a person doesn't fill out a census, it costs the city and state."

With its "treasure trove of information," the census should remain far-reaching, said Imad Hamad, executive director at the Dearborn-based American Human Rights Council. "Tinkering with the census for short term ideological and partisan reasons is simply unconscionable." 

A representative for the Michigan GOP did not return requests for comment Thursday.

During arguments in the case at the Supreme Court in April it seemed as though the Trump administration would win because Chief Justice John Roberts and other conservatives appointed by Republican presidents did not appear to see anything wrong with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to add the question. Ultimately, however, Roberts joined the court’s four more liberal members in saying the administration’s current justification for 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.

“Altogether, the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the secretary gave for his decision,” Roberts wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas said in dissent that “the court’s erroneous decision…unjustifiably interferes with the 2020 census.” Trump’s two appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, joined Thomas’ opinion. Justice Samuel Alito wrote separately in partial dissent.

What will happen next is unclear. The Census Bureau said in a brief statement only that the decision is “currently being reviewed.” But 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. Also on Thursday the court issued a decision in a second politically charged case, dealing a huge blow to efforts to combat the drawing of electoral districts for partisan gain.

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 the question would make people with noncitizens in their households less likely to fill out their census forms.

In his opinion, Roberts wrote that evidence showed that 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.

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 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.

Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed