Trump seeks to circumvent court on the census
The Trump administration this week defiantly pressed ahead with efforts to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 census, despite stinging Supreme Court ruling that it could not. The Commerce Department initially announced that it would leave the question off the census after the justices voted 5 to 4 to block it from being included, with Chief Justice John Roberts delivering the White House its first major defeat at the high court by unexpectedly joining its liberal bloc. The court ruled that the Commerce Department gave “contrived” reasons for including the question, violating federal law. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had claimed the administration wanted to include the question to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. But recently unearthed memos from a deceased Republican strategist who was advising Ross indicated that the question was designed to scare away millions of Hispanics from participating, and thus increase the congressional representation of “Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”
Days after the court ruling, President Trump publicly contradicted his own officials, saying the administration was “absolutely moving forward” with the question. The administration later tried to abruptly swap out its legal team on the case, only to be denied by a federal judge, leading to speculation that the government’s current lawyers see the case as unwinnable. Trump has suggested he might try using an executive order to restore the question. Attorney General William Barr said he believes there are multiple legal paths for adding the citizenship question. “The president is right on the legal grounds,” Barr said. “I felt the Supreme Court decision was wrong.”
What the editorials said
Enough of this “charade,” said the Los Angeles Times. The Trump administration was caught in a bald-faced lie about its clear intent to discourage illegal immigrants and their families—legal or not—from responding to the census. The resulting undercount would have shifted power and resources away from immigrant-heavy communities that tend to vote Democratic. The administration can hardly admit its real motive, so it only has one option left: “Come up with a new lie about its rationale.” “So what?” said The Wall Street Journal. Congress has granted the commerce secretary broad powers to conduct the census, giving Ross “indisputable” legal authority to add the citizenship question. It’s not up to the court to determine whether a federal agency’s motives for legal actions are “pure.” Roberts probably sided with the liberals “to ensure the court isn’t perceived as a rubber stamp on the Trump administration.” But he’s created a terrible precedent in the process.
What the columnists said
Trump is essentially “claiming for himself absolute authority to overrule the court,” said Dahlia Lithwick in Slate.com. The question now is whether the chief justice will stand up to the president, or repeat his performance in the Muslim travel ban case, allowing the administration to launder a terrible idea “so it’s just clean enough to take at face value.” Trump’s defiant response to his first major defeat at the Supreme Court is “chilling,” said Garrett Epps in TheAtlantic.com. “If the administration tries to end-run the court, it will set off a constitutional crisis of a kind that even Richard Nixon ultimately did not dare to provoke.”
Trump shouldn’t back down, said James Lucas in TheFederalist.com. The census has counted noncitizens because the Constitution requires apportionment based on “the whole number of persons” in each state, but that standard is unfair. Roughly 14 percent of California’s population are noncitizens, entitling the state to more representation and resources per capita than, say, West Virginia, where only 1 percent are noncitizens. Gathering citizenship information will show just how far the U.S. “has deviated from the constitutional gold standard of ‘one person, one vote.’”
No matter what happens now, said Paul Waldman in The Washington Post, Hispanics will still fear talking to census takers. And who can blame them? The Census Bureau is prohibited from sharing information with law enforcement. But the Trump administration, with its stepped-up ICE raids and brutal treatment of asylum seekers, has shown it “will find any excuse it can to kick them out of the country.” That open hostility will surely depress Hispanic participation, just as Trump and the Republicans hoped.
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from AP (3) ■