Supreme Court holds up citizenship question on census

Trump seeks delay following victory for Democratic AGs

IN A BLOW TO THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION, the Supreme Court on Thursday blocked a citizenship question from being added to the 2020 Census, partially because the Commerce Department’s initial explanation for why it decided to include it appeared to be “contrived.”  

In a 5-4 decision, the justices sent back to a lower court the case challenging whether the census should contain a citizenship question. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey was one of 19 Democratic attorneys general who filed the lawsuit against the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census 

The ruling came less than a week before Census forms are scheduled to go to print. President Trump tweeted that he has asked White House lawyers whether the Census can be delayed to allow time for further court consideration of the issue. 

Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s four liberal justices in the decision, writing “we cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision “to include the citizenship question and the explanation given” that it was based on enforcement of the Voting Rights Act enforcement. 

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had previously argued the question should be added because it would bolster the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He said that his department had been sent a request by the Department of Justice last year to add the question so it would be able to distinguish citizens from noncitizens. 

The question, which was proposed a year ago by Ross, drew strong criticism from Census experts and leaders of many Democratic-leaning states. Research projected that addition of the question would lead households with noncitizens and immigrants to not fill out the form, creating an undercount in immigrant-rich communities 

The Census count, which is conducted every 10 years, determines the number of seats a state gets in the US House of Representatives, the number of Electoral College votes states have, and the level of federal spending it receives for various programs 

An analysis by the Census Bureau itself determined that as many as 6.5 million fewer people would respond if the citizenship question were included. That could, in turn, result in California, Texas, New York, Arizona, Florida, and Illinois each losing a House seat. 

Healey, speaking at a State House press briefing, said the ruling is a “victory” that will “help protect our representation in government as well as billions of federal aid dollars that support education, health care, and other priorities. 

Advocates were heartened by the ruling, but cautioned that the issue isn’t settled.  

“It’s not over yet,” said Beth Huang, director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, which is helping a coalition of nonprofits to prepare for the 2020 census. “We know that the Census must be as accurate as possible to keep marginalized communities from losing even more resources.”

Ross has been mired in controversy after a House oversight committee voted to hold him in contempt for failure to produce documents involving the genesis of the citizenship question 

Media reports have said it originated with a 2015 memo from a deceased Republican political operative who wrote to Census officials that adding the question could help Republicans and white voters in districting decisions based ocensus data. That information eventually made its way to Ross.  

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren called the decision a “welcome relief,” but criticized the court for leaving the possibility of the “racist question” still being added on the table. She said if elected president she would replace the “tainted” census with another one in 2022, though it’s unclear whether a president has authority to issue an order for a new Census.