The decision to back away from the controversial question was a victory for civil rights advocates concerned that the query would lead to an inaccurate count of immigrant communities that could skew representation and federal funding.
This result was essentially a foregone conclusion to years of litigation as soon as the Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. held that the administration had given a pretextual reason for including the citizenship question that did not match the facts. In non-lawyer-speak, the Trump administration lied about its intent to compile a deliberately inaccurate census designed to undercut nonwhites and to bolster the political fortunes of the GOP and white voters. When Roberts ordered the lower court to find a nonpretextual reason, he and the other justices ran out the clock, knowing printing of the 2020 Census needed to begin almost immediately.
The administration’s capitulation saves it from a review of newly discovered documents in a case out of Maryland confirming plaintiffs’ suspicions that “the government was guilty of conspiracy and intent to discriminate.” The Post reported, “Files discovered on hard drives belonging to a deceased Republican redistricting strategist suggested he had communicated with the Trump administration about how to get the citizenship question onto the survey and that the strategist had determined that adding the question would create an electoral advantage for Republicans and non-Hispanic whites. In his ruling Tuesday, [U.S. District Court Judge George J.] Hazel wrote that the plaintiffs’ motion ‘raises a substantial issue’ in the case.”
News reports suggest that the government has committed to drop the question for good and to not try introducing it at some later date: “Before Judge Hazel in Maryland, DOJ confirmed that the decision is final. Judge Hazel pressed them on it, specifically asking for assurance that they wouldn’t print now and revisit later and that the decision is ‘once and for all,’ and DOJ lawyer said ‘correct.’ ”
Minority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) reveled in the news that the administration had thrown in the towel. “The exclusion of the citizenship question from the census is a victory for our democracy and for fair representation of all communities in this country,” Schumer said in a written statement. “The Trump administration’s politically-motivated efforts to undermine the Constitution in this instance were so reprehensible that even the conservative Supreme Court couldn’t let them get away with it.” He vowed, “Democrats in Congress will be watching the Trump administration like a hawk to ensure there is no wrong-doing throughout this process and that every single person is counted.”
The census helps to allocate billions of federal dollars, to determine a range of policies and to calculate the number of House representatives (and hence the electoral college count) for each state. Instead of an intentionally misleading count, we now have the potential for a fair, accurate count.
This is an extraordinary, complete victory for groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU crowed in tweets, “The Trump administration’s attempt to politicize and manipulate this fundamental pillar of our democracy has failed. Our communities will be counted.” The tweets continued: “This ruling is a victory for immigrants and communities of color across America. It is a victory for democracy itself. Everyone MUST come together to make sure that the 2020 census counts every person.”
It speaks volumes that today’s Republican Party relies on anti-democratic tactics such as devising a census to undercount minorities, perpetuating gerrymandering, purging voter rolls, enacting voter ID laws and limiting access to the polls in nonwhite areas to maintain its grip on political power.
The decision is noteworthy insofar as the administration’s lack of legitimate legal defenses doesn’t stop it from litigating unmeritorious claims, whether it is retaliation against sanctuary cities, unilateral changes in immigration law or presidential defiance of Congress in swiping funds from the Defense Department for a border fence. They’ll try any claim, present any scenario regardless of the facts that get its way. We are fortunate that the federal judiciary, with notable exceptions (the third version of the Muslim ban, the gerrymandering case), has rejected the administration’s shenanigans and upheld the rule of law. That line of defense has been and will continue to be critical in restraining a lawless president.