Law & the Courts

Why Trump Lost the Census Case

President Donald Trump walks to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Md., June 26, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Chaos can cost you in court.

I’ll freely admit, I’m surprised. In April I predicted that the Trump administration would prevail in its effort to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census form. I based my conclusion on the combination of Congress’s broad delegation of authority to the executive branch to conduct the census in the “form and content” that the secretary of commerce determines, the historical norm of including citizenship questions, and the traditional leniency of so-called arbitrary and capricious review.

Against this legal background, I believed that — like with the travel-ban case — a chaotic process would matter less than the very broad discretion granted the president by existing law. I was wrong.

Today, Justice John Roberts joined the four more progressive judges to reach a legal conclusion (articulated in a complex series of interlocking and competing concurrences and dissents) that roughly goes as follows: Including a citizenship question in the census is not “substantively invalid.” However, the Administrative Procedure Act applies, and it is “meant to ensure that agencies offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public.” Since the administration’s explanation for its agency’s action was “incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency’s priorities and decisionmaking process,” the administration failed to meet its APA obligations.

The secretary of commerce had pointed to an assertion from the Department of Justice that the question would assist in voting-rights enforcement. To put it simply, the majority did not buy that explanation, finding that it was more of a rationalization: The secretary of commerce decided to include the question, went hunting for a reason, and eventually got the DOJ to help.

Quite frankly, this sounds about right. As the Court put it, “the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the Secretary gave for his decision.” This section of the opinion is instructive:

The record shows that the Secretary began taking steps to reinstate a citizenship question about a week into his tenure, but it contains no hint that he was considering VRA [Voting Rights Act] enforcement in connection with that project. The Secretary’s Director of Policy did not know why the Secretary wished to reinstate the question, but saw it as his task to “find the best rationale.”

A different way of putting the opinion is that the APA, at the very least, requires an honest process.

Why was this outcome different from that of the travel-ban case? In that case, the president himself offered evidence that the stated reasons for the administration’s actions were pretextual. The president himself provided evidence that anti-Muslim animus provided at least part of the justification for his order. Yet in that case the statue at issue was different. If the census statutes granted the president considerable discretion, the statute at issue in the travel ban granted him truly immense discretion, unbounded by the APA. Different statutes yield different outcomes.

So now what? There is much speculation on Twitter that the administration may have time to go back to the drawing board, conduct a proper process in accord with truthful, justifiable reasoning, and obtain legal approval in time to print the census forms.

It’s possible, but I’m skeptical. First, there are now real questions as to whether the process was improperly influenced by arguments by deceased Republican redistricting expert Thomas Hofeller that adding the citizenship question would be “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” Evidence of racial animus would almost certainly alter the legal calculus and require the administration to go to great lengths to show that any new process has been cleansed from any racist taint.

Plaintiffs will again challenge any effort to include the question, they’ll likely obtain injunctions in favorable jurisdictions, and then the clock will become the administration’s enemy. I could well be wrong, but I’m doubtful SCOTUS will have an opportunity to opine before that clock runs out.

There is a lesson here, one that the administration (and indeed, all litigants) would do well to remember. When engaged in conduct that’s likely to lead to litigation, make it easy for the court to rule for you. Chaos can lose cases. Evidence of disingenuousness alienates judges.

Process matters, and you always want to appear to be the most reasonable party before the court. The Trump administration has gotten away with chaos before. It did not today, and as much as conservatives may once again grow angry at Justice Roberts for joining the Court’s progressive wing, if they want to place real blame for today’s Supreme Court setback, look to the administration. Its lack of candor caught up to it, and honesty may now come too late.

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