WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court temporarily blocked the Trump administration's plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census Thursday, giving opponents new hope of defeating it.
The ruling by Chief Justice John Roberts questioned the rationale for the administration's effort, just as challenging states and immigrant rights groups have done.
"The evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation (Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross) gave for his decision," Roberts wrote. "The sole stated reason seems to have been contrived."
In a complex decision with several dissents and concurrences, the court's four liberal justices said they would have struck down the citizenship question outright, while the court's four other conservative justices said it should have been upheld.
The court's decision doesn't end the dispute. And a separate challenge to the administration's motive for asking the citizenship question remains alive in another federal district court. That inquiry could drag on for much of the summer, jeopardizing the timetable for printing the census questionnaire.
The challenge to the Commerce Department's plan was the most controversial case on the high court's docket, affecting 22 million noncitizens and, ultimately, the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives and some $650 billion in federal funds.
Opponents contended that adding the question was an effort to scare noncitizens into avoiding the census. That in turn would require expanding largely Democratic congressional districts, potentially reducing their overall number. It could cost California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois and Arizona seats in Congress.
Commerce Secretary Ross directed the Census Bureau to add the question last year based on the Justice Department's request. He said the "need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden that the reinstatement of the citizenship question would impose outweigh fears about a potentially lower response rate."
Three federal district judges separately agreed that Ross' reasons were inadequate under federal law. They noted that he had consulted with White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, both fierce opponents of liberal immigration policies. Only later did the Justice Department ask that the question be added.
While it had appeared during oral argument that all the court's conservative justices were on the administration's side, Roberts proved the deciding vote. The evidence, he said, "showed that the secretary was determined to reinstate a citizenship question from the time he entered office."
"We do not hold that the agency decision here was substantively invalid," Roberts noted. "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."