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A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the administration of President Donald Trump from including a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census, at least for the time being.
The court did not rule that a citizenship question is unconstitutional, but instead said the Trump administration’s explnation for including it “seems to have been contrived.”
The 5-4 decision likely means next year’s decennial census will not include a question asking whether participants are legal citizens of the U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s four liberal judges in the majority.
Opponents of adding the question said it would lead to large populations of noncitizens not participating in the Census for fear of deportation, causing significant undercounts in the population, particularly among Latinos and other minorities.
The Trump administration said it wanted the question so federal authorities can better enforce voting laws. Non-citizens are forbidden from voting in federal elections.
Oral arguments in the case were held in late April. In late May, opponents of the citizenship question notified the Supreme Court that they had new evidence showing Republicans wanted the question added because it would give them an advantage in upcoming elections.
The evidence included information on the computer hard drive of the late conservative redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller, a proponent of the citizenship question. After his death last year, Hofeller’s daughter turned the data over to Common Cause, a voting rights advocacy group.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said adding a citizenship question to the Census was reasonable, but the administration’s explanations for adding it didn’t match up with the evidence.
“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,” Roberts wrote in the majority decision.
The Supreme Court essentially upheld a lower court’s decision to block the question pending further information.
“The District Court’s conviction that the decision to reinstate a citizenship question cannot be adequately explained in terms of DOJ’s request for improved citizenship data to better enforce the” Voting Rights Act,” Roberts wrote. “In these unusual circumstances, the District Court was warranted in remanding to the agency, and we affirm that disposition.”
A citizenship question has been asked on prior censuses, but not since 1950.