Supreme Court will rule on Trump administration's effort to add question on citizenship to 2020 Census

Richard Wolf
Leadership Conference For Civil And Human Rights President and CEO Vanita Gupta speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington last year on the Trump administration's decision to add a new question on citizenship to the 2020 Census.

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration's controversial plan to determine who is and who is not a U.S. citizen during the 2020 Census will be decided by the Supreme Court.

The justices agreed Friday to squeeze the blockbuster case on to their April calendar, presumably because the decennial Census questionnaire is scheduled for printing this summer. 

A coalition of state and local governments and immigrant-rights groups have complained for nearly a year that the Commerce Department is trying to intimidate both undocumented and legal immigrants. If their headcount is suppressed, it could reduce the allocation of federal resources and congressional seats to immigrant communities.

A federal district judge in New York struck down the plan last month, ruling that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross exceeded his authority when he announced the inclusion of the citizenship question.

Judge Jesse Furman said that the likely undercount of immigrants would mean that California would face "a certainly impending loss of representation in the House of Representatives," and Texas, Arizona, Florida, New York and Illinois would face "a substantial risk of losing a seat."

In addition, he said, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia likely would be among those losing federal funds.

The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to hear its appeal, sidestepping a federal appeals court because of the tight timetable. 

"The effect of the district court’s decision is that the government will be disabled for a decade from obtaining citizenship data through an enumeration of the entire population," Solicitor General Noel Francisco told the court in his request.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office is leading the opposition to the administration's effort, had urged the justices to let the district court ruling stand. Lawyers for the House of Representatives, now controlled by Democrats, argued that the administration cannot undermine "the Census’s constitutional purpose: obtaining an actual enumeration of the country’s total population."

The government has not asked about individuals' citizenship on the Census since 1950. The question is included in the American Community Survey, a sample survey conducted annually by the Census Bureau to provide updated demographic information.

By agreeing to hear the case, the justices juiced up a low-key docket that had helped them avoid the spotlight following the contentious confirmation last fall of Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of decades-old sexual misconduct.

Caroline Fredrickson, president of the liberal American Constitution Society, warned that the Supreme Court may see the issue differently than Judge Furman.

"The court should affirm the district court’s decision, but with its new 5-4 conservative majority, including the newly-minted and controversial Justice Kavanaugh, that may be a faint hope," Fredrickson said. 

Critics of the administration's Census effort, including California, the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant-rights groups, said immigrants' distrust of the Census – and illegal immigrants' fear of deportation – would cause them to be undercounted. 

In his 277-page ruling, Furman dismissed Ross's contention that he acted on the Justice Department's request. He said Ross and his aides sought the citizenship question for other reasons and then "acted like people with something to hide."

Opponents have alleged that Ross chose to ask about citizenship after conversations with top Trump administration officials at the time, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

The Supreme Court agreed last fall to hold oral argument on one element of the case – whether challengers' lawyers could question Ross about his reasons for adding the citizenship question. That had been scheduled for this month but was rendered moot when Furman struck down the plan.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court will rule on Trump administration's effort to add question on citizenship to 2020 Census