The Trump administration may shut down the census count now, after the Supreme Court on Tuesday put on hold a judicial order keeping the count going through the end of the month.
The court, as is common in emergency applications, did not provide a reason. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only justice to record her dissent.
“The harms caused by rushing this year’s census count are irreparable,” Sotomayor wrote. “And respondents will suffer their lasting impact for at least the next 10 years.”
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the Commerce Department could not end the count in early October, as it had planned, and that it should continue until Oct. 31. But it also said the department could still try to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for delivering the count to the White House and did not have to wait until April 30 to deliver it, as a district court said.
That timing is important. The White House wants to send the population totals to Congress in January, and President Trump has said he wants to remove undocumented immigrants from the state counts.
Census data is used to determine a decade’s worth of federal funding, apportionment of House seats and state redistricting. If Trump is not reelected, a delay much beyond Dec. 31 would mean that his opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, would make decisions about the count.
Plaintiffs, including the National Urban League, several jurisdictions and other groups, contend that a shortened timeline would result in an undercount of harder-to-count populations, including immigrants, people of color and lower-income groups, depriving them of funding and representation.
After the 9th Circuit’s affirmation of part of U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh’s ruling that the count should continue, the Trump administration went to the Supreme Court. Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall said Koh’s ruling “exacerbates the serious risk” that the Census Bureau will not be able to deliver the data by the Dec. 31 statutory deadline.
Wall said the court should not worry that the count is incomplete, saying, “The district court disregarded the Bureau’s successful efforts to ensure that the 2020 census will reach levels of accuracy and completeness comparable to other recent censuses while still meeting the deadline.”
Census experts and plaintiffs have said they are concerned that some households were counted inaccurately to reach the completion-rate goals, citing enumerators and supervisors across the country who said they were told to cut corners and skip steps in the rush to bring all states to a 99% completion rate.
“As defendants’ own data shows, millions of Americans have now been counted only because of the district court’s injunction,” said the Urban League response to the government suit filed by lawyer Melissa Arbus Sherry.
“And critical field work is ongoing, especially for those in hard-to-count populations. Any stay would allow defendants to stop the 2020 Census count, shut down field operations, fire hundreds of thousands of employees, and start processing data the very next day. There is no going back from that.”
Congress could still approve a change to the statutory deadline. A House coronavirus relief bill approved the change, and a bipartisan group of senators has come out in support of it.
Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.