Supreme Court blocks census citizenship question

CHRISTIAN WADE/Staff photoFlanked by immigration and voting rights advocates, Attorney General Maura Healey praised the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on Thursday that blocked the Trump administration's plans to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census. Healey, who filed a lawsuit last year with 18 other attorney generals seeking to block the move, called the high court's ruling "a win for democracy."

BOSTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the Trump administration's plans to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

On Thursday, justices held that the U.S. Commerce Department’s rationale for adding a question to the 2020 census asking if someone is a U.S. citizen was inadequate.

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court's liberal minority in the unexpected, 5-4 ruling, which kicks the controversial case back to the lower courts for further review. The ruling came amid doubts that the U.S. Census Bureau would have ample time to add the question before upcoming deadlines to finalize the questionnaire.

"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," Roberts wrote.

Dozens of states led by Democrats challenged the citizenship question, along with civil rights advocates, arguing that it would take power from local governments and might lead to an inaccurate population count. That would affect data used to determine congressional representation and the allocation of federal funding to states.

In Massachusetts, which has a large immigrant population, the move raised concerns that immigrants and their families — even those living in the U.S. legally — would avoid the count, which is conducted every decade.

"This is wonderful news," said Eva Millona, executive director of Massachusetts Immigrant Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "The Supreme Court stood up for the integrity of the census and the rights of all people to be counted."

Millona, who leads the state's 2020 Complete Count Committee, said there's still a lot of work to be done to assuage fears among immigrants.

"A lot of damage has already been done," she said. "This citizenship question was part of a much larger campaign of hate and intimidation that target immigrant communities."

The Trump administration argued that it added the question to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, but opponents say it was done to discourage citizen and noncitizen immigrants from responding to the census.

Three federal judges ruled that the question was illegal because officials involved failed to justify why it was needed.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin, a Democrat who oversees the count in Massachusetts, accused the Trump administration of trying to "sabotage" the decennial census.

Galvin praised the high court's ruling on Thursday but said he remains concerned that "any attempt by the federal government to further delay the printing of census forms would jeopardize our ability to get a complete and accurate count."

Opponents of the question point to newly discovered evidence, reportedly found on the computer files of a now-dead Republican consultant, suggesting that the question was part of a broader plan to increase Republican power in left-leaning blue states.

The constitutionally mandated census is required to count the country's entire population, regardless of citizenship status. It asks questions about race, marital status and other topics.

While there hasn't been a question about citizenship since 1950, the Census Bureau asks about citizenship status as part of its annual American Community Survey.

The Census Bureau estimates the 2010 count failed to find 1.5% of the Hispanic population nationally. Its experts warned of a similar undercount if the citizenship question was allowed for next year's count.

There's a lot more at stake than an accurate head count.

Census results determine how seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are allocated among states and how billions of dollars in federal money are distributed. It also forms the basis for the redrawing of political districts, from those for Congress to state legislatures.

Massachusetts has nine representatives in Congress, which could increase or decrease depending on the count. The state lost one congressional seat after the 2010 count because the population didn’t grow as fast as the national average.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.  

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