Supreme Court allows Trump administration to end census count

In a statement Tuesday night, the Census Bureau said counting would end on Thursday. That means Americans who haven’t completed the census can do so online through 6 a.m. Eastern Time on Friday morning (midnight in Hawaii), by phone by Thursday or mail a paper response as long as it […]

In a statement Tuesday night, the Census Bureau said counting would end on Thursday. That means Americans who haven’t completed the census can do so online through 6 a.m. Eastern Time on Friday morning (midnight in Hawaii), by phone by Thursday or mail a paper response as long as it is postmarked by Thursday. In-person census takers will conclude their work on Thursday.

Sotomayor, an appointee of President Barack Obama, was the only justice on the shorthanded, eight-member court to note her dissent. She called the harms from ending the count early “avoidable and intolerable.”

Experts, both inside and outside the agency, have expressed concern over a shortened timeframe for the constitutionally mandated count, arguing that a politically motivated, shortened timeline due to the pandemic threatened the census on two ends: both the actual enumeration and the data processing that follows.

The count determines how approximately $1.5 trillion in federal spending is directed and how House seats are apportioned among the 50 states. The Census Bureau requested in April that Congress grant the agency a 120-day extension to statutory deadlines because of the pandemic.

The proposed deadlines would have pushed field collection until the end of October, with each state’s congressional districts being submitted to the president by April 30, 2021, instead of the year-end statutory deadline.

But Congress never granted the exemption, and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, an appointee of President Donald Trump, backed away from the requested extension. In early August, the bureau officially announced it was reversing its request for an extension and would deliver apportionment data to Trump by the end of the year, executing a replan that would end enumeration by the end of September and deliver apportionment data by the end of the year.

This infuriated community groups, municipalities and congressional Democrats, who all argued that the accelerated schedule would lead to a deeply flawed count that would reverberate over the next decade.

“Defendants could not then, and certainly cannot now, produce an accurate and complete census by the statutory deadline,” the plaintiffs in the case, which include the National Urban League, wrote in a brief to the court.

Earlier on Monday, the Census Bureau announced that it had counted 99.9 percent of American households: 66.8 percent through self-response, and 33.1 percent through nonresponse followup.

In her dissent, Sotomayor rejected an argument from the government that the count was already satisfactory. “Even a fraction of a percent of the Nation’s 140 million households amounts to hundreds of thousands of people left uncounted,” she wrote. “And significantly, the percentage of nonresponses is likely much higher among marginalized populations and in hard-to-count areas, such as rural and tribal lands.”

“A census count delayed is a census count — and justice — denied,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose, Calif., a Democrat, in a statement responding to the ruling. “Justice Sotomayor’s dissent perceptively describes this administration’s outrageous attempts to do everything but ensure a full and fair census count.” The city of San Jose was one of the plaintiffs.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, whose order the Supreme Court stayed, ruled last month that decennial count must continue, ordering that the schedule the Census Bureau’s attempt to wrap up enumeration was not feasible, and the bureau should follow the schedule the agency requested at the onset of the pandemic.

Koh and the Trump administration battled in the initial stages of the litigation, with the agency initially forging ahead trying to wrap up enumeration by Oct. 5, just days after the revised end date of Sept. 30.

Early this month, Koh, the San Jose-based Obama appointee, ordered the agency continue enumeration through the end of this month.

In the wake of her orders requiring the Census Bureau to keep seeking responses, Koh received a flurry of emails from rank-and-file census workers claiming that supervisors were pressing to wrap up the count despite her directives. Koh has repeatedly demanded explanations from the Trump administration and at one point floated holding Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for defying one of her orders. The Commerce Department oversees the Census Bureau.

The DOJ asked the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to stay Koh’s directives to the Census Bureau, but a three-judge panel last week unanimously rejected the administration’s bid to stop the count. The appeals judges — all Clinton appointees — did lift Koh’s order that the Commerce Department not seek to meet the year-end deadline for a count to be used to apportion House seats starting with the 2022 elections.

A report from Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General in September found that the decision to accelerate the census schedule “was not made by the Census Bureau” and that it “increases the risks to obtaining a complete and accurate 2020 Census.”

“Senior career officials at the Bureau perceived that this decision resulted from the Administration no longer supporting the schedule extension, but ultimately they lacked visibility into this decision process,” the report read. “Bureau leaders continued to believe that the statutory extension was preferable, and would give the Bureau the best chance to create a high-quality, usable census.”

The Supreme Court’s order is the latest development in the legal fight over the decennial count that was thrown into havoc by the pandemic. Before rolling out the accelerated timeline, Trump asked the Census Bureau to provide apportionment counts excluding undocumented immigrants — a request that would represent a shift from previous practice and is also tied up in court from litigants who say it is unconstitutional.

A separate panel of judges blocked that memorandum in September, which has also been appealed by the government to the Supreme Court.

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