Supreme Court Issues Decision in Census Citizenship Question Case


The Supreme Court issued a limited decision this morning in the challenge to the Trump Administration inserting a question on citizenship into the 2020 Census questionnaire. The Court did not disqualify the question per se, but it sent the case back to the District Court for further inquiry into the Commerce Department’s rationale for the citizenship question. A copy of the decision can be found here.

Chief Justice Roberts noted that the rationale for the Citizenship question seemed contrived. The majority opinion said that “we cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given…. If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case. In these unusual circumstances, the District Court was warranted in remanding to the agency, and we affirm that disposition.”

The Court did not say that inserting the question was beyond the scope of the powers of the Commerce Department. In its conclusion, the majority says: “We do not hold that the agency decision here was substantively invalid. But agencies must pursue their goals reasonably. Reasoned decisionmaking under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction.”

The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census, had claimed that the Citizenship question was inserted to assist in carrying out the mandates of the Voting Rights Act. The District Court in New York had ruled that the explanation was inadequate and possibly pretextual. The Supreme Court agreed saying; “the District Court’s conviction that the decision to reinstate a citizenship question cannot be adequately explained in terms of DOJ’s request for improved citizenship data to better enforce the” the Voting Rights Act. “In these unusual circumstances, the District Court was warranted in remanding to the agency, and we affirm that disposition.” In other words, the Commerce Department needs to do a better job explaining itself if it wants the Citizenship question put into the Census.

Note: Quotes from the Court’s opinion were found on SCOTTUS Blog.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.