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‘Contrived’ and ‘a distraction’: Supreme Court issues severe rebuke to Wilbur Ross and Trump administration

Its ruling wasn’t necessarily a permanent blow to the administration’s effort to get a citizenship question on the Census. But the court’s reasoning was striking.

Three judges have found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave a phony reason for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. (Video: Meg Kelly, Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court on Thursday handed the Trump administration a major, possibly permanent, setback in its effort to add a citizenship question to the Census. It also delivered a striking rebuke.

In a 5-4 decision, the court’s four liberal members joined Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in rejecting the administration’s stated reasons for the citizenship question. They offered it a chance to make a new case, but it’s not clear whether there will be time to do so before the 2020 Census.

And in blocking the citizenship question, the court -- in a decision notably written by Roberts, a GOP appointee -- essentially accused Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross of deception and the administration of hiding its true motivations.

Let’s walk through the key parts.

First, the administration justified the decision as being necessary for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. But critics argued that this was a thinly veiled pretext and that the decision was actually made to dilute the political power of Hispanics by dissuading undocumented immigrants from responding to the Census. (Here I walk through why that would be a big deal — and a political boon to Republicans.)

The court basically said the VRA was indeed a pretext — and went after Ross in the process.

The “evidence showed that the Secretary was determined to reinstate a citizenship question from the time he entered office,” according to the court, and “adopted the Voting Rights Act rationale late in the process.” It said he “did so for reasons unknown but unrelated to the VRA.”

The court goes on to say that this might actually be okay — and that the government need not provide every reason offered for every decision at every juncture. But this particular rationale for the decision just didn’t hold water.

“Several points, considered together, reveal a significant mismatch between the decision the Secretary made and the rationale he provided,” the court said. “The record shows that the Secretary began taking steps to reinstate a citizenship question about a week into his tenure, but it contains no hint that he was considering VRA enforcement in connection with that project.”

The ruling is also tough on the Justice Department, whose actions the court said undermined the stated reasons for the citizenship question.

“Even so, it was not until the Secretary contacted the Attorney General directly that DOJ’s Civil Rights Division expressed interest in acquiring census-based citizenship data to better enforce the VRA,” the ruling says. “And even then, the record suggests that DOJ’s interest was directed more to helping the Commerce Department than to securing the data."

The court then emphasized that the Justice Department didn’t appear interested in exploring any alternatives to obtain such citizenship data, which was apparently telling when it came to its motivations.

“Finally, after sending the letter, DOJ declined the Census Bureau’s offer to discuss alternative ways to meet DOJ’s stated need for improved citizenship data, further suggesting a lack of interest on DOJ’s part,” the court said. “Altogether, the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the Secretary gave for his decision.”

The court said the “disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given” was too difficult to ignore. It said “the VRA enforcement rationale — the sole stated reason — seems to have been contrived.”

And then it closed with this damning section: “Reasoned decisionmaking under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction.”

We have known for a while that Ross’s account of how the citizenship question came to be didn’t exactly hold water. He suggested this was something recommended to him by the Justice Department, but his emails showed otherwise. Further evidence suggested this effort might have been more political than the administration let on, most notably via the involvement of a longtime Republican redistricting guru who had argued that such data could be used to help Republicans.

The court didn’t go so far as to make any determinations about the latter. But it issued a stern ruling on the former.

Update: Trump has now speculated on Twitter about delaying the Census so the administration can try again.