The U.S. Supreme Court put on hold the Trump administration’s plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, saying the Commerce Department’s explanation for adding the question was inadequate. But the court opened a path that could still let the question be added.
Acting Thursday in the marquee case of its term, a splintered court said Thursday that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s explanation—that it would help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act—couldn’t be squared with the evidence about its motivations.
"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," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for himself and the court’s four liberals, taking a slap at the Trump administration’s decision-making process.
But a different majority said Ross was justified in rejecting the recommendation of the Census Bureau that the question not be included because it would cut responses by millions of people.
Ross "determined that reinstating a citizenship question was worth the risk of a potentially lower response rate," Roberts wrote for himself and the other four conservative justices. "That decision was reasonable and reasonably explained, particularly in light of the long history of the citizenship question on the census."
The high court ruling sends the matter back to the Commerce Department, which could try again to add the question with a better explanation. It’s unclear how long that process would take.
President Donald Trump’s administration has been hoping to start printing census questionnaires in a matter of days. The ruling means the administration will have to hold off, at least for now, and guarantees more court fights in the coming months.
The outcome of the case could affect the allocation of federal dollars and congressional districts. California, Texas, Arizona, Florida, New York and Illinois may each be at risk of losing at least one seat in the House of Representatives.