Baltimore Sun: U.S. Supreme Court blocks census citizenship question

June 27, 2019
In The News

The U.S. Supreme Court is forbidding President Donald Trump's administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census for now — drawing praise from elected officials in Maryland.

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 Trump tweeted 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 2020 census must begin April 1.

"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, including those in Maryland, say adding the question has the potential to affect the amount of federal money that goes to each state and its representation in Congress.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, whose office joined the lawsuit to block the question from appearing on census forms, said Thursday that the Trump administration’s move to include it was “a naked attempt to undermine democracy and depress the census count in states, like Maryland, that welcome immigrants.”

Frosh added that his office would “continue to support efforts to ensure an accurate count of Maryland’s residents beginning in 2020.”

Frosh did not comment on whether or not his office believed there was still time for the administration to try again to justify the addition of the question.

The Census Bureau said in a brief statement only that the decision is "currently being reviewed."

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform investigating the impetus for the census question, praised the ruling. He characterized it as a rebuke of the Trump administration and a dismissal of the claim by administration officials, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, that the intent of the question was to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

“The Supreme Court has now eviscerated this claim, calling it a ‘pretext,’ ‘contrived,’ and ‘incongruent with what the record reveals,’” Cummings said in a statement.

Cummings also said that, if the administration now offers up new justifications for the question, it would contradict past sworn testimony by Ross that protecting the Voting Rights Act was the sole reason.

He urged the Census Bureau to move forward with printing census forms without the citizenship question.

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 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 Justice Department had never previously sought a citizenship question to help enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters' access to the ballot box, in the 54-year history of the law.

Roberts wrote that evidence showed 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 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.

Baltimore’s Democratic mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, praised the court’s decision. Young said cities like Baltimore — which has seen a big influx of immigrants in recent years — stood to lose the most if the citizenship question were included on census forms.

“While the legal battles to remove the citizenship question are not over, I remain committed to ensuring that every Baltimorean is counted and can confidently participate in the upcoming census,” Young said.

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