Supreme Court Rules That Census Count Can Be Cut Short

Supreme Court Rules That Census Count Can Be Cut Short

Originally Published in The New York Times

Adam Liptak and Michael Wines - October 14, 2020

After extending the deadline to count every person in America, a process complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration reversed course. Critics saw a political motive.

Census workers planning routes in New York in March. A Supreme Court order on Tuesday was a victory for the Trump administration, which argued that it needed to shut down census field work to meet a statutory deadline.
Credit...Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

The brief unsigned order formally only pauses the population count while the administration and a host of groups advocating a more accurate census battle in a federal appeals court over whether the count could be stopped early.

As a practical matter, however, it almost certainly ensures an early end because the census — one of the largest government activities, involving hundreds of thousands of workers — cannot be easily restarted and little time remains before its current deadline at the end of this month. In fact, some census workers say, the bureau had already begun shutting down some parts of its count despite a court order to continue it.

The census has been buffeted both by the coronavirus pandemic and the involvement of the Trump administration in what has traditionally been a rigorously nonpartisan, data-driven exercise. Its early end could mean that White House officials, rather than Census Bureau experts, may use the population numbers to determine representation in the House of Representatives and in state and local governments.

President Trump has insisted those numbers should not include undocumented immigrants living in the United States. That conflicts with the mandate of the Constitution that the census count all residents of the country and would almost certainly give more representation to Republicans.

The court’s order gave no reasons, which is typical when the court acts on emergency applications. It said the count could stop while appeals moved forward.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying that “the harms associated with an inaccurate census are avoidable and intolerable.”

The Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday effectively halted what has been the most contentious and litigated census count in memory. 
Credit...Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

The order was a major victory for the Trump administration, which had been rebuffed by both district and appeals courts in its effort to end the count early. It was a bitter defeat for state and local governments and advocacy groups that had sued to keep the population count going despite the administration’s determination to shut it down.

“The court’s action will cause irreversible damage to efforts to achieve a fair and accurate census,” said Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents many of the parties that sued. “It’s incredibly disappointing.”

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