Supreme Court Hands Trump a Stinging Defeat on the Census—for Now

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In a complex 5-4 decision which saw Chief Justice John Roberts join his liberal colleagues on the bench, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled to block the Trump administrations efforts to add a citizenship question to the United States 2020 Census—for now.

The ruling in Commerce Department et al v New York et al is a tricky one, and essentially comes down to an issue of reasoning. While the court seemingly did not see a fundamental problem with adding a citizenship question in the future—despite concerns that it could dangerously skew the American electoral system in favor of Republicans (something conservative lawmakers seemed to be counting on)—it stated that the reasons presented by the administration during this specific case were insufficient.

Here is the key paragraph from the decision, which explains the court’s reasoning (emphasis mine):

It is hardly improper for an agency head to come into office with policy preferences and ideas, discuss them with affected parties, sound out other agencies for support, and work with staff attorneys to substantiate the legal basis for a preferred policy. Yet viewing the evidence as a whole, this Court shares the District Court’s conviction that the decision to reinstate a citizenship question cannot adequately be explained in terms of DOJ’s request for improved citizenship to better enforce the VRA. Several points, taken together, reveal a significant mismatch between the Secretary’s decision and the rationale he provided.


In other words, a citizenship question may be fair game in the future, but the government did such a bad—and seemingly mendacious—job arguing it this time around that the court has no choice but to block it.

The issue of adding a citizenship question to the census comes as part of the Trump administration’s larger voter disenfranchisement efforts, and is seen by voting rights advocates as a way to manipulate the census—by which the metrics for future elections are determined in a way that would entrench Republican (and white) rule in a demographically changing society. In fact, files obtained from Dr. Thomas Hofeller, the so-called “pioneer of modern redistricting” who died last fall, show exactly that.

Writing that redistricted maps drawn solely based on voting age citizens—and not overall residents, as the census is designed to count—Hofeller concluded that those districts “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” Hoeffler then explained that, “without a question on citizenship being included on the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire the use of citizen voting age population is functionally unworkable.”

Adding a citizenship question leads to redistricted maps leads to “Republicans and non-Hispanic whites” being in the electoral advantage for years to come. It’s that simple.


The question now becomes whether the Trump administration will try again with a different argument and rationale in time to add the question before the 2020 Census begins.

This is a developing story and is being updated.

Senior writer. When in doubt he'll have the soup.

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