Updated at 7:54 p.m. ET
President Trump says he is looking into delaying the 2020 census, hours after the Supreme Court decided to keep a question about citizenship off the form to be used for the head count.
Trump tweeted that he has asked lawyers whether they can "delay the Census, no matter how long, until the United States Supreme Court is given additional information from which it can make a final and decisive decision on this very critical matter."
He added: "Can anyone really believe that as a great Country, we are not able [to] ask whether or not someone is a Citizen. Only in America!"
The Supreme Court on Thursday left the citizenship question — "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" — blocked from the 2020 census for now, in part because of the government's explanation for why it added it in the first place.
However, opponents of the question, who have worked for more than a year to get it removed, are claiming victory.
The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said the court "cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given" by the Trump administration.
"The reasoned explanation requirement of administrative law, after all, is meant to ensure that agencies offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public," the opinion continued. "Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. 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."
The complicated decision comes more than a year after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, overruled the unanimous advice of Census Bureau experts and approved the addition of the question. Ross said the citizenship data was needed for enforcement of the Voting Right Act.
The chief justice simply couldn't swallow that claim. The evidence in the record, he said, shows that explanation to be "a pretext." Or, put another way, a sham. And Roberts said accepting the explanation would require the court to have "a naivete from which ordinary citizens are free."
The high court's decision could have profound political consequences. The new population counts from the 2020 census will determine for the next 10 years how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives and how many Electoral College votes each state gets in presidential elections beginning in 2024. They also help determine how some $900 billion a year in federal money is allocated across the country for roads, schools, hospitals, health care and more.
New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office led one of the lawsuits, says she is "pleased" with the court's decision. "Thanks to the Court, the census will remain a tool for delivering our government's promise of fairness and equity," she said in a written statement.
Department of Justice Spokesperson Kelly Laco said in a statement that the department is "disappointed by the Supreme Court's decision" and that it will "continue to defend this Administration's lawful exercises of executive power."
Census Bureau research has long shown that adding a citizenship question often leads people in households with immigrants — including those who are U.S. citizens — to simply not fill out the census form. That could result in an undercount that is not only substantial but uneven, according to Census Bureau experts, and it hits mainly in urban areas where immigrant groups live, while leaving rural, mainly white areas largely unaffected.
According to the Census Bureau's own expert estimates, the addition of the question is likely to reduce census responses among households with at least one noncitizen by at least 8 percentage points. That translates to an estimated 9 million people not participating in the constitutionally mandated head count of every person living in the U.S.
The bureau has also found that responses to the question would be more expensive to collect and would produce data less accurate than existing government records on citizenship.
Dozens of states, cities and other groups challenged the addition of the citizenship question in court. The challengers maintained that Ross' motivation for adding the question was political. Ross said the Justice Department wanted the citizenship information for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Three federal district courts subsequently found that explanation "pretextual" — in other words, a sham.
The high court's decision comes amid a variety of new developments.
On June 12, the House oversight committee voted to hold Ross and Attorney General William Barr in contempt for failure to produce emails and other documents involving the citizenship question. Unless there is an agreement, the full House could vote on the contempt citation, but the timing is unclear. And unless the issue is resolved through the usual process of negotiation, it would be litigated in the courts.
In a separate development later that same day, organizations challenging the addition of the citizenship question in New York asked the Supreme Court to send the census case back to the lower court if necessary to resolve what the plaintiffs called newly discovered evidence casting doubt on Trump administration claims. The groups cite unpublished documents regarding the citizenship question on the late Thomas Hofeller's hard drives, which were found by his daughter.
Hofeller, who died 10 months ago, was long one of the Republican Party's top strategists on redistricting. Attorneys for the challengers in New York, led by the ACLU, contend that his hard drives contain documents showing that Hofeller "played a significant, previously undisclosed role in orchestrating" the addition of the citizenship question to be able to redraw political maps to favor Republicans and non-Hispanic white people. U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman of New York is set to review these allegations this summer.
"These allegations cut to the heart of this case," attorneys for the New York challengers said in their Supreme Court filing.
They said that the Hofeller documents, which were discovered after the census case was argued before the Supreme Court, show that the administration's rationale for adding the citizenship question was "concocted" to hide a racially and politically discriminatory motive.
The Hofeller files have also spurred U.S. District Judge George Hazel of Maryland to revisit claims in two Maryland-based lawsuits over the question. Plaintiffs in those cases asked him to reconsider claims of discrimination and of a conspiracy among Trump administration officials that the judge had previously decided did not have enough evidence to support.
In an opinion released earlier this week, Hazel said the new evidence "potentially connects the dots between a discriminatory purpose — diluting Hispanics' political power — and Secretary Ross's decision."
"As more puzzle pieces are placed on the mat, a disturbing picture of the decisionmakers' motives takes shape," the judge added.
The Trump administration's attorneys have said Hofeller played "little, if any, role" in pushing for a citizenship question. But in a recent court filing, attorneys for the Maryland plaintiffs say that he was in touch with a high-ranking Census Bureau official about the question as early as 2015.
Finally, earlier this month, the Census Bureau began conducting a test census with around 480,000 households in most parts of the U.S. to come up with a better fix for offsetting the projected decrease in census participation because of a citizenship question. The results "will inform staffing, training and planning decisions" for next year's head count, Victoria Velkoff, an associate director at the Census Bureau, said at a public meeting in February.
The citizenship question issue is likely to continue to be a political lightning rod as the 2020 presidential race progresses.
In an April tweet, President Trump said that a census without a citizenship question would be "meaningless."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In a setback for President Trump, the Supreme Court has kept the citizenship question off the 2020 census for now. Trump responded to today's decision in a couple of tweets. He says he's asked lawyers if they can delay the census so his administration can try again to make the case for adding the question.
NPR's Hansi Lo Wang joins us now to explain this ruling and how it will affect the national head count. Hansi, first just tell us about the decision itself. What did the court have to say?
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Well, majority of the Supreme Court justices says that the rationale the Trump administration said for wanting to add this question - to better enforce part of the Voting Rights Act - that rationale - they called it - said it seemed to be contrived. And he said that there's a disconnect between the decision to add this question, a question that Census Bureau research suggests is highly likely to discourage households from participating - noncitizen households from participating in the headcount and produce less accurate citizenship data than existing government records - there's a disconnect between adding that question and wanting to have more detailed citizenship data.
CORNISH: The president doesn't just want to try again with the court, right? He wants to delay the census. Is that even possible? I mean, can the census be delayed?
WANG: The census is constitutionally mandated, and federal law says that it has to happen every 10 years. A count has to been taken around April 1 every 10 years, and there's a set schedule for the Census Bureau to provide a population count - a new population count. Eventually, that goes to the redistribution of congressional seats the year after a census is taken. So that would disrupt the formation of new government.
There's another deadline that President Trump may be referring to, which is - there's this printing deadline. The Census Bureau has said that the forms for the 2020 census - the start - starting - excuse me - starting to print that - those forms has to start by Monday, July 1, the Census Bureau has said. But Census Bureau officials have also said that with exceptional effort and additional resources, that deadline could be pushed back to October 31.
CORNISH: Opponents of this question have been fighting it for more than a year. How did they react to the ruling?
WANG: Well, a lot of these challengers of the citizenship question - more than two dozen states, cities and other groups - around the country are really calling this a major victory. They think that ultimately speaking - that practically, it would be very hard for the Trump administration to try to get the courts to ultimately allow them to add this question at this point, given these very tight deadlines.
New York state Attorney General Letitia James spoke before President Trump tweeted. She spoke in New York City, and she said that if President Trump's administration tries to come up with another reason for this question, quote, "we will see them in court again." Let's listen to what else she had to say.
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LETITIA JAMES: We need some finality and some closure to this because we need to engage in the census. It's required by the Constitution, and the Constitution is clear - everyone should be counted.
CORNISH: I want to back up for a second. Why are the stakes so high, and why has this question become so controversial?
WANG: It's because when we're talking about the census, we are talking about power, and we are talking about money. We're talking about how Congressional seats and electoral college votes are redistributed amongst the states every 10 years, based on population counts. And we're talking about how close to $900 billion a year in federal tax dollars are distributed for schools, for roads, for Medicare, for Medicaid, for other public services in local communities. That money is guided. How that money is - how there's a fair share of that is guided by census numbers.
And the concern here is that this citizenship question, Census Bureau research has shown, is highly likely to discourage some households from participating in the census. It also would be something that three federal judges have blocked because they believe that this is a sham justification - this question - by using it - what the Trump administration says is for better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. And it is a major concern that will risk the accuracy of next year's head count.
CORNISH: Is this over now?
WANG: No, I am watching additional legal battles. There is one happening in Maryland. We're watching to see if a federal judge there may issue an emergency order to essentially stop the Trump Administration from printing forms on Monday, and we'll see where that goes.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Hansi, thanks so much.
WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.