The justices’ decision to take up the case of Department of Commerce v. New York was largely expected and marks the latest step in a closely watched legal battle over next year’s census. Critics contend that adding the citizenship question would discourage people, particularly people of color, from responding to the survey. An inaccurate census would have drastic consequences, they warn, because its results are used to allocate congressional seats and hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds.
In January, a federal judge in Manhattan blocked the Trump administration from adding the question. Normally, the case would then go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit before heading to the Supreme Court. But with the Census Bureau facing a fast-approaching June deadline for finalizing census questions, the high court has agreed to hear argument in the appeal in late April.
Both the plaintiffs in the suit ― 18 states, the District of Columbia, several cities and a handful of immigrant rights groups ― and the Trump administration argued in court filings that if the justices were going to take the case, they should do so quickly and bypass the 2nd Circuit.
In a 277-page opinion last month, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman held that the way the Trump administration added the question ran afoul of a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act. He found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, had ignored analyses from experts on how damaging the question would be and cherry-picked evidence to support his desire to add the question.
Ross publicly claimed that he began considering the question only after the Justice Department requested it and that the Justice Department wanted the question in order to obtain better data to enforce the Voting Rights Act. But Furman, who was appointed to the federal bench by then-President Barack Obama, said the voting rights rationale was “pretextual,” a “sham justification” concealing the true reason for Ross’ decision. The decennial census ― which goes out to every American household ― hasn’t asked about citizenship since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. And a top Justice Department official was unable to explain in a sworn deposition how adding the citizenship question would get the department better citizenship data than it already had available.
In total, seven different lawsuits have been filed challenging the addition of the citizenship question.
This story has been updated to note that the Supreme Court will hear argument in the case in late April.