SCOTUS rules against citizenship question on census ... for now

Here’s one decision we’ve been waiting for with bated breath. Can the citizenship question be added to the 2020 census? This is one of the more convoluted decisions we’ve had to plow through in a long time, but the short answer appears to be… no. At least not for now. And the ruling comes in several parts with different vote totals on each. You can read the full document here.

NPR sums up the complicated nature of the question in one tweet.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the decision, and as you read through it you may find it frustrating. I’ve been making the argument here for some time now that adding a question that’s been asked repeatedly on one form of the census or another for virtually the entire history of the Republic should be a given. In part of the ruling, Robers writes precisely the same thing.

There have been 23 decennial censuses from the first census in 1790 to the most recent in 2010. Every census between 1820 and 2000 (with the exception of 1840) asked at least some of the population about their citizenship or place of birth. Between 1820 and 1950, the question was asked of all households. Between 1960 and 2000, it was asked of about one-fourth to one-sixth of the population. That change was part of a larger effort to simplify the census by asking most people a few basic demographic questions (such as sex, age, race, and marital status) on a short-form questionnaire, while asking a sample of the population more detailed demographic questions on a long-form questionnaire.

Roberts also goes on in other paragraphs to declare that the Secretary of Commerce is perfectly within his rights to add or delete questions from the census. So how is it that we’re not done with this and adding the question? In a long and rambling explanation, the court explains that the challenges brought to the addition of the question are based on the belief that certain individuals (illegal aliens, specifically) will be less likely to respond if the question is asked. They also openly admit that failing to respond would be the fault of the individual since a response is required by law.

But because the census results are used to apportion federal funding, a drop in response rates could reasonably be expected to impact the distribution of those funds adversely for certain communities. Still, the court doesn’t go so far as to say that the question can’t or won’t be added. What’s missing is an adequate explanation of why the Secretary wants to add it. In other words, it’s being tossed back down the line for a fresh look and a request for more details. In the meantime, since the risk exists that the petitioner’s fears might be realized, the lower court’s ruling that they can’t add the question yet is allowed to stand.

This comes as a disappointment, but it’s also not the end of the road. We’ll apparently be fighting this one for some time to come.

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