On Tuesday, the Supreme Court gave the Trump administration the green light to halt the 2020 census count ahead of schedule. While the order technically only pauses the count while a federal appeals court decides whether or not the count should be stopped early, experts say the ruling effectively shuts down the count for 2020 and may affect the process for counting the U.S. population over the next decade.
The New York Times reports that the court gave no reasons for the decision to allow the census count to be halted temporarily and that Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only dissenting voice.
“Because the harms associated with an inaccurate census are avoidable and intolerable, I respectfully dissent from the grant of stay,” Sotomayor wrote.
The census count has already been a big drama due to the pandemic and the involvement of the Trump administration both of which have caused deadlines to shift back and forth. The original August deadline was pushed to Oct. 31 then abruptly changed to Sept. 30 by the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau.
According to CNN, the Trump administration argued that the Oct. 31 deadline didn’t give Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross enough time to deliver a count of the nation’s population to the president by Dec. 31.
But some say that the administration is trying to take advantage of a difficult situation for political gains.
From the Times:
Mr. Ross’s action came over the objection of career census experts who argued that it would undermine, perhaps fatally, the accuracy of the count. It forced the bureau to abandon on short notice some of the counting safeguards it was using to make the tally reliable. And it quickly triggered a lawsuit seeking to keep the tally going.
The move came not long after the announcement in July that the administration would seek to exclude undocumented immigrants from the population totals it would send to Congress for reapportioning seats in the House.
The two developments appear related. The old deadlines would have allowed the winner of the presidential election to transmit the population totals next spring. Readopting the December deadline would ensure that Mr. Trump controls that process, even if he loses the November election.
Ultimately, the Oct. 31 deadline was restored by the order of Judge Lucy H. Koh of the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California.
“Because the decennial census is at issue here, an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade,” Koh wrote. She also suspended the Dec. 31 statutory deadline for submitting the results.
More from the Times:
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, turned down a request from the Trump administration to stay Judge Koh’s order and allow it to stop counting before the end of the month. But the panel said it would not bar the administration from trying to comply with the Dec. 31 reporting deadline.
And that’s when the administration asked the Supreme Court to intervene. Jeffrey B. Wall, the acting solicitor general, told the court in a brief filed on Wednesday that Koh’s ruling “constitutes an unprecedented intrusion into the executive’s ability to conduct the census according to Congress’s direction.”
“As the law stands, assessing any trade-off between speed and accuracy is a job for Congress, which set the Dec. 31 deadline and has not extended it, and the agencies, which acted reasonably in complying with that deadline,” Wall wrote.
On Tuesday, the Census Bureau released a statement saying that “well over 99.9% of housing units have been accounted for in the 2020 Census” and that “self-response and field data collection operations for the 2020 Census will conclude on October 15, 2020.”
But the claim that 99 percent of households have been counted is “widely questioned by census and demographic experts, who cast the number as a public relations estimate that concealed broad gaps in the accuracy of the tally,” the Times reports.
The Commerce Department’s decision to move the deadline up to Sept. 30 was met with a lawsuit filed by the National Urban League, the League of Women Voters and other groups and local governments. According to the suit, moving the deadline up doesn’t just undermine the accuracy of the count, but it would “facilitate another illegal act: suppressing the political power of communities of color by excluding undocumented people from the final apportionment count.”
Attorneys for the groups told CNN that they “will wait to see the Census Bureau’s next steps to determine how to respond.”
Melissa Arbus Sherry, an attorney at Latham and Watkins who argued the case in court, said that “the Supreme Court’s order staying the preliminary injunction does not erase the tremendous progress that has been made as a result of the district court’s rulings.”
But the court’s decision does erase any chance of the census count being resumed, according to the Times. It’s a process that involves hundreds of thousands of government workers and it can’t easily be restarted especially with the official deadline being only two weeks away.