U.S. Supreme Court delays citizenship question on census, refuses to tackle partisan gerrymandering

The Supreme Court of the United States. On June 27, 2019, the court issued a highly anticipated ruling on partisan gerrymandering and sent a question about whether the Trump administration can ask people their citizenship status in the 2020 census back to lower courts. (Photo by NCinDC via Flickr: Creative Commons)
The Supreme Court of the United States. On June 27, 2019, the court issued a highly anticipated ruling on partisan gerrymandering and sent a question about whether the Trump administration can ask people their citizenship status in the 2020 census back to lower courts. (Photo by NCinDC via Flickr: Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday issued two of its most-anticipated rulings of this term, delaying the addition of a citizenship to the 2020 census and declaring that the courts can’t settle partisan gerrymandering disputes. 

In a complicated decision regarding the Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the high court agreed with a lower court to send the issue back to the Commerce Department, citing problems with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ rationale for adding the question. The question returns to the lower court.

The delay marks at least a partial victory for critics of adding the question, who argued that it would deter people — particularly immigrants — from responding to the census, which could drastically skew the count. Census numbers are used to determine everything from how congressional districts are divvied up to where the government spends cash for programs like Head Start and Medicare.

“It is hardly improper for an agency head to come into office with policy preferences and ideas, discuss them with affected parties, sound out other agencies for support, and work with staff attorneys to substantiate the legal basis for a preferred policy,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. 

But, he added, “Altogether, the evidence tells a story that does not match the Secretary’s explanation for his decision. … The explanation provided here was more of a distraction.” 

Ross has said that the plan to revive a citizenship question on the 2020 census was an attempt to bolster the Voting Rights Act. But the Supreme Court majority wrote, “Several points, taken together, reveal a significant mismatch between the Secretary’s decision and the rationale he provided. The record shows that he began taking steps to reinstate the question a week into his tenure, but gives no hint that he was considering VRA enforcement.” 

Latino and Latino lawmakers in Colorado’s state house issued a statement this morning, saying that it had been clear from the get-go that the Trump administration sought to include the citizenship question in order to “limit the political power of Latinx communities and other communities of color.

“That is unacceptable and wrong,” the statement continued. “Today’s Supreme Court decision rightly determined that the administration hasn’t shown enough justification for adding the question, but the fight isn’t over – a lower court will still have to weigh in.”

Also reacting this morning was Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. Colorado in January joined a multi-state lawsuit against the Commerce Department, challenging the citizenship question. Weiser called the decision a “victory for our nation and for Colorado.”

“By recognizing that the government did not truthfully explain why it sought to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the rule of law must be followed,” Weiser said in a statement.

Both Weiser and the Latino/a lawmakers emphasized the need for all to participate in next year’s census.

Court won’t wade into partisan gerrymandering

In another blockbuster opinion issued Thursday — the last day of the court’s term — the justices ruled that it’s not their place to settle disputes over partisan gerrymandering. 

The court split 5-4 along ideological lines in combined high-profile cases surrounding whether state legislators in Maryland and North Carolina went too far when they used politics to redraw congressional districts in their states. 

“Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” the conservative majority found in another opinion penned by Roberts. 

He was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

The court’s conservative wing wrote that judicial interference in the process would be an “unprecedented expansion of judicial power” and would lead to court intervention “unlimited in scope and duration — it would recur over and over again around the country with each new round of districting.”

The North Carolina plaintiffs in the case complained that the state’s redistricting plan discriminated against Democrats, while the Maryland plaintiffs argued that their state’s map discriminated against Republicans. 

The court’s liberal wing issued a scathing dissent penned by Justice Elena Kagan. 

“For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” she wrote. 

“And not just any constitutional violation. The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives.” 

Kagan was joined in the dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. 

 

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