Supreme Court Blocks Census Citizenship Question But That's Not The End of This Saga

In a flurry of partially concurring and dissenting opinions on Thursday, the Supreme Court blocked the Census Bureau from going ahead with a question on U.S. citizenship on the 2020 survey, which could shape political representation for a decade, if not a generation.

But the the court's ruling only upheld a district judge's order that the Census Bureau further explain its decision to include the question, meaning it is only blocked until further review from federal courts.

"We cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given [by the Trump administration]," the ruling said.

"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," it read. At another point the ruling said agencies are meant to "offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public. The explanation provided here was more of a distraction."

Plaintiffs in the case had argued that the bureau's decision violates the Administration Procedure Act, which requires that rules implemented by the federal government not be "arbitrary and capricious."

Critics, voting rights advocates and the Trump administration's own Census Bureau have contended that inquiring about citizenship on the decennial census will discourage Hispanic families from participating. The Census is responsible for apportioning resources at nearly every level of government—including allocation of more than $675 billion in funding to states and municipalities—and determining how much representation is afforded to each state in the House of Representatives.

President Trump To Name His Pick For Supreme Court Justice Opening In Primetime Address
A man walks up the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on January 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson/Getty

A new report from the Census Bureau this month found that a citizenship question would reduce the response rate among households with at least one non-citizen by up to 8 percent, which represents a substantial increase over the bureau's previous estimate of 5.8 percent. According to ACLU attorney Dale Ho, this corresponds with an undercount of 9 million people.

The citizenship question has involved a plot of intrigue that continued up until this week. In the days leading up to Thursday's decision, a federal appeals court allowed a U.S. District Court judge to reopen a different case challenging the citizenship question based on new evidence that the judge said painted a "disturbing picture" of the government's decision-making process.

Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller, now deceased, had documents on his hard drive providing evidence of direct contact between himself and a top census official who was involved in the consideration of the citizenship question. Hofeller had also conducted a study in 2015 which found that the addition of that question would provide a distinct electoral advantage to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.

Plaintiffs and defendants in the Supreme Court case hastily filed briefs, asking them to consider the Hofeller documents in alternate ways that could provide either side with a strategic advantage.

With only four days until what the Census Bureau considers their printing deadline for census materials, the citizenship question remains blocked—for now.