Supreme Court: No Citizenship Question on the 2020 Census, Yet

For the past 50 years, the U.S. government has declined to ask respondents to the census about their citizenship status, fearing that noncitizens and Hispanic citizens would be less likely to participate at all if they thought census information would be used to deport them or their loved ones. The Trump administration, however, wanted to re-introduce a citizenship question to the 2020 census, claiming it would provide more accurate population data.

The Supreme Court, however, has stepped in and decided that the reasoning provided by the government thus far has failed legal muster, and, for now, has barred the citizenship question from the census.

Incongruent Explanation

"We are presented," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the 5-4 majority, "with an explanation for agency action that is incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency’s priorities and decisionmaking process. It is rare to review a record as extensive as the one before us when evaluating informal agency action — and it should be. But having done so for the sufficient reasons we have explained, we cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given."

That explanation was ostensibly to get improved citizenship data to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. But the Court ruled that the Commerce Department and Secretary Wilbur Ross failed to prove that explanation was reasoned enough:

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 … Reasoned decisionmaking under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction.

Show Your Work

Importantly, the Supreme Court did not rule that Ross and the Commerce Department could not include the citizenship question at all on the 2020 census. "We do not hold that the agency decision here was substantively invalid," Roberts wrote. "But agencies must pursue their goals reasonably."

So it seems the justices are merely sending the Trump administration back to the drawing board, tasked — after the fact — to produce a sufficiently reasonable explanation for their decision-making. We’ll see if they can.

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