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.