Citizenship Question on Census Remains Undecided in Supreme Court Ruling

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross could pursue new reasons for adding the question.

BLOG POST | Jul 1, 2019
By Lisa Soronen, executive director, State and Local Legal Center

Census Question on Citizenship in Doubt

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Chief Justice Roberts joined Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan to conclude that the reasons Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave for adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census were pretextual in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).  

Commerce Secretary Ross could now offer different reasons for why he wanted to add the citizenship question.  If he chooses to do so, those new reasons may also be challenged in court as pretextual or discriminatory. If he does not offer any different reasons for adding a citizenship question, then the 2020 census would be conducted without that question.   

Since 1950 the decennial census has not asked all households a question about citizenship. In a March 2018 memo Secretary Ross announced he would reinstate the question at the request of the Department of Justice (DOJ), “which sought improved data about citizen voting-age population for purposes of enforcing the Voting Rights Act (VRA).”

According to the Chief Justice, additional discovery revealed the following:  “that the Secretary was determined to reinstate a citizenship question from the time he entered office; instructed his staff to make it happen; waited while Commerce officials explored whether another agency would request census-based citizenship data; subsequently contacted the Attorney General himself to ask if DOJ would make the request; and adopted the Voting Rights Act rationale late in the process.”

The Court agreed “to a point” with the federal government that there was “nothing objectionable or even surprising in this.” But, the APA requires that federal agencies don’t act arbitrarily and capriciously. Here, “viewing the evidence as a whole,” Ross’s decision to include the citizenship question “cannot be adequately explained in terms of DOJ’s request for improved citizenship data to better enforce the VRA.”    

Chief Justice Roberts’ final sentences in the opinion are first sympathetic to the Secretary of Commerce but he ends with a stiff rebuke: “We do not hold that the agency decision here was substantively invalid. But agencies must pursue their goals reasonably. Reasoned decisionmaking under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction.”


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