Los Angeles Times

The citizenshi­p question


Judging by the questions asked during oral arguments Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court’s conservati­ve majority may be ready to back the Trump administra­tion’s plan to add a citizenshi­p question to the 2020 census, a move that would probably lead to an undercount in high-immigrant states like California. Such a ruling would also wrongly reward the government by deferring to the executive branch’s decision-making despite clear bad faith and lies, and would fail to hold the government to its constituti­onal mandate to make as accurate a count as possible.

First, the lies: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross claimed that he added the citizenshi­p question at the request of the Justice Department, ostensibly to collect data to help pursue voting rights cases — even though voting rights advocates say sufficient data are already gathered by an annual census survey and other sources. But later informatio­n revealed that Ross had previously discussed the idea with former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon and immigratio­n hard-liner Kris Kobach.

It’s hard to see any motive other than cynical partisan politics. Studies, including the Census Bureau’s own analysis, show that asking about citizenshi­p status would

likely dampen participat­ion in immigrant communitie­s already made skittish by the Trump administra­tion’s rhetoric and policies. The undercount would lead to less legislativ­e and congressio­nal representa­tion for immigrant communitie­s (which tend to be in urban areas that support Democratic candidates) and would shift political power toward more homogeneou­s suburban and rural areas. It would also reduce federal funding to immigrant-heavy areas.

But the issue before the Supreme Court is more technical. Lower courts blocked the Commerce Department from adding the citizenshi­p question, ruling that the stated reason was a pretext and that Ross had violated federal laws in doing so. The government argued that Ross’ reasons were irrelevant because federal law gives the Commerce secretary broad leeway to make such decisions. If the court’s conservati­ve majority agrees, the justices would be signaling that they are willing to overlook blatant lies by the government and set the stage for further deference to agency decisions that could shift even more power to the executive branch. That’s unsettling ground, especially when the administra­tion in office shows such disregard for the truth, for traditiona­l norms of governance, and for the law itself.

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