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Supreme Court Rules On Census Citizenship Question and Gerrymandering

The census ruling is a defeat for the Trump Administration.

Two new rulings from the Supreme Court have addressed questions regarding the citizenship question on the 2020 census and partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts. In a defeat for the Trump Administration, the Court referred the citizenship question back to the lower court. The Court also distanced the judicial branch from questions of partisan rigging of congressional districts.

On the census question, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Court’s four liberal justices in a decision that held that the Commerce Department’s justification for adding the citizenship question, that the government wanted to use the data to better enforce voting rights laws, was a pretext after evidence was found in the estate of deceased Republican strategist that suggested that the use of a citizenship question could provide whites and Republicans with an electoral advantage after the next redistricting.

A federal judge in New York ruled that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had committed “smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut violations” of federal laws governing administrative agencies in including the question. The Court returned the case to the lower courts for additional consideration but ruled that Wilbur Ross could not be deposed.

The Court left the door open to further appeal by the Trump Administration noting that it was reasonable to use a citizenship question on the census rather than administrative records as the Census Bureau recommended even if the tactic resulted in a lower response rate from Hispanic households. The problem found by the Court was that Ross’s rationale was not supported by evidence.

“The evidence showed,” Roberts wrote, that Ross “was determined to reinstate a citizenship question from the time he entered office; instructed his staff to make it happen; waited while Commerce officials explored whether another agency would request census-based citizenship data; subsequently contacted the Attorney General himself to ask if DOJ would make the request; and adopted the Voting Rights Act rationale late in the process.”

When “the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the Secretary gave for his decision,” Roberts continued, judicial review calls for “something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case.”

On the question of gerrymandering, drawing congressional districts for maximum partisan gain, the Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that, while the process is distasteful, gerrymandering is a problem for politicians rather than the courts.

In a decision also written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court held that there was no constitutional requirement for proportional representation in congressional districts. Congressional districts do not have to reflect the proportion of a party’s statewide vote.

“Nothing in the Constitution provides standards to decide what is fair,” wrote Roberts.

Roberts suggested that there were other alternatives for addressing the gerrymandering problem. For example, either Congress or the states could mandate that redistricting be done by independent commissions rather than by partisan legislators.

Roberts was joined in the majority on this case by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neal Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh.

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