The Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily blocked the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the decennial national census on the grounds that it failed to provide an adequate justification for doing so.
In a split decision, the Court sent the matter back to a lower court for review, setting up a protracted and high-stakes legal battle that will likely last throughout much of the summer, surpassing the July deadline that administration attorneys have said they would need to meet to include the question on the upcoming census.
In his decision, Chief Justice John Roberts explicitly criticized Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross for failing to adequately justify his decision to add the citizenship question to the census for the first time since 1950.
“The evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation [Ross] gave for his decision,” Roberts wrote. “The sole stated reason seems to have been contrived.”
Ross claimed last year that he added the citizenship question at the behest of the Department of Justice in order to facilitate the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which, in certain circumstances, requires that government lawyers know how many minorities live in a certain area for the purpose of drawing election districts.
Critics of the administration have suggested the rationale was a disingenuous ploy intended to conceal a true desire to weaken Democratic congressional representation by eliminating illegal immigrants from the census rolls.
Writing in dissent, three of the Court’s four conservative justices said they would have approved the administrations’s request to add the citizenship question because they accepted the justification Ross provided.
“For the first time ever, the court invalidates an agency action solely because it questions the sincerity of the agency’s otherwise adequate rationale,” said Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote a separate dissent.
The liberal justices concurred with Roberts’s decision to send the matter back to a lower court.
The ruling comes after U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman of New York blocked the citizenship question, arguing that the question would discourage participation in the census and lead to significant undercounting.