EDITORIAL: Allow census to proceed

Staff report
Demonstrators gather at the Supreme Court as the justices finish the term with key decisions on gerrymandering and a census case involving an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 27, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Only with this presidential administration is a Supreme Court decision not the final word.

On their way out the door last month, the high court ruled that the Trump Administration had not sufficiently — or, it took little reading between the lines to ascertain, honestly — made its case that a question regarding citizenship ought to be inserted into the 2020 census.

“The decision to reinstate a citizenship question cannot be adequately explained in terms of (the Department of Justice’s) request for improved citizenship data to better enforce the (Voting Rights Act),” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the 5-4 majority. He cited “a significant mismatch between the decision (Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross) made and the rationale he provided.”

No kidding. The White House claims the question will help it protect minority voting rights, but this justification was devised late in the game. The citizenship question is clearly designed to tamp down census participation by minority groups — not just non-citizens but legal immigrants. That would mean an undercount and subsequent underrepresentation of those populations, and outsized political clout and government largess for Republican lawmakers.

President Donald Trump admitted this himself.

“You need it for Congress,” Trump said of the citizenship question on Friday. “You need it for Congress for districting.”

As with much of what the president says, this is entirely inaccurate — congressional districts are apportioned based on the number of people, not citizens.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on June 27 and, with a deadline to begin printing the 2020 census forms just days away, the Justice Department announced plans to go forward without the citizenship question.

That, one would think, was that.

One would be mistaken.

The Tweeter-in-Chief took to social media to announce the administration would continue to look for a way to add the citizenship question. As is usually the case when Trump attempts to rule by Twitter, his administration was left scrambling to readjust reality to conform with their boss’s desires.

“Obviously, as you can imagine, I am doing my absolute best to figure out what’s going on,” Justice Department lawyer Josh Gardner told U.S. District Judge George Hazel when the latter demanded to know why the administration was seemingly ignoring the Supreme Court ruling.

Join the club, Mr. Gardner. This is what happens when an erratic and self-serving president continues to flout the law absent any political repercussions.

Trump even mused to reporters that he might force the question onto the census via executive order. If the president knew the first thing about the government he purportedly runs, he would know executive orders do not supersede Supreme Court decisions.

Of course, if the administration really wanted to determine how many citizens there are to — cough, cough! — protect minority voting rights, it could collect that information via the Census Bureau’s ongoing American Community Survey, which already asks that question.

But that’s not the real goal.

So now, the administration is dreaming up a new, more palatable rationale to present to the courts. It could certainly work. Recall, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority finally bought the third installment of the president’s travel ban on Muslims.

Win or lose, critics fear a good amount of damage has already been done.

“This administration’s flagrant disregard of court orders is appalling, and will result in the same kind of misinformation that leads our communities to be reluctant to participate in the census," Denise Hulett, national senior counsel at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told USA Today.

Let Trump & Co. continue their legal challenges but let whatever decision is finally reached take effect for the next census, in 2030. Right now, the government must move forward with current census plans absent any citizenship questions.

The issue is too important, and the decision will have too wide-reaching many ramifications to be left to hurried, harried, last-minute rulings.