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Supreme Court Steps Up on Census Citizenship Question, Shortchanges Democracy on Gerrymandering

The Justices refused to allow the 2020 Census to ask people about their citizenship, but it did allow purely partisan voting districts to stand.

  • Brennan Center for Justice
June 27, 2019

In a contrasting pair of opinions, the Supreme Court on Thursday refused to accept the Trump administration’s lies about its reason for adding a citizenship question to the census, but the court also abdicated its responsibility to ensure that voting maps are fair.

The decision the census case delivered at least a temporary victory in the lawsuit challenging the citizenship question. The highly anticipated ruling upheld in part a lower federal court’s decision holding that the Commerce Department’s addition of the question violated federal law.

“On the census, the Trump administration’s lies went so far that even this Supreme Court had to say no,” said Brennan Center President Michael Waldman. “If this leads to a result with no citizenship question, that would be a very welcome outcome, and it would also preserve the status quo. This should have been an easy case, and in the end, it was.”

In the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court affirmed the lower court’s holding that the reason Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave for his decision to add the citizenship question was pretextual, a violation of the law that requires administrative agencies to provide the true reasons behind their decisions. Roberts wrote that Ross’s given reason was a “distraction,” while Justice Stephen Breyer concurred that the evidence presented a “story that does not match the Secretary’s explanation for his decision.”  

The case was sent back to the district court for further proceedings. In the meantime, another case challenging the citizenship question in a federal court in Maryland will reconsider whether the Commerce Department intentionally discriminated against minorities when it added the question.

In the gerrymandering cases, the court ruled 5–4 that district maps can no longer be challenged as partisan gerrymanders in federal court because the matters are “political questions.” Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion in the lawsuit against maps in North Carolina and Maryland

“The ruling that no federal court can ever consider claims of extreme and unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering is truly appalling for the long term health of our democracy. It’s a judicial green light for egregious partisanship, a permission slip for politicians to entrench themselves without fear of judicial intervention,” Waldman said.

“The Constitution is clear about what must happen now. We the people have the power to bar partisan gerrymandering. States and Congress can prevent it, and can create independent nonpartisan redistricting commissions. Voters enacted redistricting reform in five states last year. And the House of Representatives passed a national ban on partisan gerrymandering and a requirement for states to establish independent panels as part of H.R. 1, the For the People Act. Time is of the essence.”

Waldman added, “Fixing our democracy now has been placed at the center of our politics by a Supreme Court that saw an unconstitutional situation and refused to do anything about it. It should be a topic at tonight’s debate, and all debates going forward.”

(Image: renaschild)