SCOTUS to Hear Citizenship Question Case Bypassing Court of Appeals

On 15 February 2019, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the census case on whether the Trump Administration could add the citizenship question to the 2020 census. The Court’s decision comes after, on 15 January 2019, the District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in State of New York v US Department of Commerce, 18-CV-5025 (JMF) that Commerce Secretary’s decision to add the citizenship question violated the Administrative Procedure Act governing the creation of new regulations by administrative agencies. Following the ruling, the Justice Department asked the US Supreme Court to bypass the ordinary appellate stage at the US Court of Appeals and take the case in light of the approaching June deadline for printing census forms. The Court will hear the case in April 2019 and the ruling is expected to be delivered in June 2019, before the Justices adjourn for the summer (CNN).

Adding the citizenship question to the upcoming 2020 census became very controversial after some groups, such as the ACLU, had said that it would deter many illegal immigrants from participating in the census. This in turn would lower the official population numbers for States with a large portion of illegal immigrants, mainly California. This could have a considerable impact on the apportionment of federal funds and seats in the House of Representatives which directly depends on population numbers (US Constitution, Article 1, Clause 3). ACLU claims that adding the citizenship question would stop about 6.5 million people from entering their details in the census which could lead to the State of California loosing billions of dollars in federal funding as well as between one and three seats in the House of Representatives (The Hill).

The Trump Administration argues that the citizenship question is necessary in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act and that this question has been asked during all but one census from 1820 to 2000. But in January 2019, a District Judge (an Obama appointee) disagreed, holding that the rationale was ‘pretextual’ and the decision was made in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act because it had failed to ‘consider all important aspects of a problem’ as required by the Act, implying also that the true intentions behind the citizenship question was to deter participation (Bloomberg).

Ordinarily, the decision of the District Court for the Southern District of New York would have to be appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. However, as with many other unfavorable judicial rulings, the Trump Administration petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the appeal bypassing the Court of Appeals. For the first time, the Court agreed. The Court’s decision is clearly motivated by the urgency of the matter given that census questionnaires must be ready in the summer of 2019. With an ordinary appellate procedure, it would not have been possible to meet this deadline. Given how rare it is for the Supreme Court to accept cases bypassing the Courts of Appeals, it is understandable that the Trump Administration is holding this decision as a small victory.