After two quick rulings by lower courts, the Trump Administration is now down to what appears to be its last option to seek a delay of a constitutional court case over the 2020 census. Only a last-ditch plea to the Supreme Court remained Wednesday, and that would come in the wake of a string of defeats for the government at all levels of the federal courts in recent weeks.
A federal judge in New York City is preparing to move ahead with a trial on whether it would be illegal or unconstitutional – or maybe both – to require every American to answer a census question on whether they are citizens.
The Administration wants that trial to be stopped until the Supreme Court can rule, during its current term, on the kind of evidence the trial judge can take into account in deciding the case. The evidence the Administration wants to exclude is among the strongest in support of the claim that the citizenship question would be invalid.
In the latest setback to the Administration, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit acted swiftly in refusing on Wednesday afternoon to order a postponement of the trial before U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman. The Circuit Court panel said it was doing so “substantially” for the reasons that Judge Furman had given on Tuesday in turning down a similar request. Among other points, Furman had strongly implied that the repeated government challenges to the trial may be bordering on a violation of court rules on proper lawyers’ conduct.
Both the government and the state and local governments that have filed the challenge to the citizenship question were due to file their final written legal arguments later Wednesday, and then make their closing oral arguments at a hearing set for next Tuesday. After that, if the case is not halted by the Supreme Court, Judge Furman would then move on to make his final decision on the challenge.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Administration lawyers had made no move in the Supreme Court for a delay of the trial. They had told Judge Furman that they might do that if lower courts ruled against postponement.
If the trial does go forward now, both the trial judge and the Supreme Court in their separate tasks in resolving the controversy will be working against a June deadline. That is when the Census Bureau says it needs to finish drafting the questionnaire that will go to every household in the nation during the 2020 tabulation.
Under the Constitution, every person living in the U.S. at the time the census is taken must be counted, whether or not they are living in the country legally or not, and whether or not they are U.S. citizens. Backed up by census experts, the state and local governments challenging the use of the citizenship question argue that this would result in a serious under-count of the population, because it will scare off immigrants who fear that coming forward could lead to deportation.
An under-count could lead to the loss of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for states with large immigrant populations, and could also lead to a decline in the flow of federal funds to those states.
The challenging state and local governments also have contended that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who is the highest ranking officer dealing with conduct of the census, planned to add the citizenship question out of a biased attempt to reduce the count of residents of Hispanic ancestry. That is the constitutional aspect of the case before Judge Furman.
The only facet of the New York City trial that the Supreme Court has blocked was a plan to question Secretary Ross in person and under oath about why he wanted to add the test of citizenship. Otherwise, the Justices have refused to delay or prohibit any other aspect of the trial.
The Justices agreed last Friday to review an Administration appeal that seeks to limit Judge Furman to making a ruling based solely on documents that the Commerce Department submitted on the plan to add the question. The Administration thus wants all evidence that was derived from questioning government officials in person and under oath about the decision to put in the question.
It seems probable that Judge Furman, if allowed to go ahead and complete the trial, would finish his ruling before the Supreme Court reaches its decision on the scope of the evidence. He thus might have to reconsider his decision by the Justices if it emerged after he had ruled, depending upon what the Supreme Court concluded.