A protester holds a sign that reads "Everyone Counts" in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington on June 27, 2019.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for the Trump administration to end field operations for the 2020 census and temporarily suspended a lower court ruling that extended the census.
The decision was made in an unsigned order, as is typical for emergencies. Justice Sonia Sotomayor disagreed.
The order will allow the Trump administration to end the decade while the U.S. 9th Court of Appeals examines the matter. The government has argued that it has already received enough responses to have an accurate census of the population.
The case came after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross traced a plan announced in April to extend the census through October 31 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In August, Ross announced that the census would be completed by the end of September in order to meet the legal deadline for reporting the results of the census to the President on December 31.
A consortium of stakeholders, cities, counties, and Indian tribes sued to meet the extended deadline.
In court records, the groups argued that if the administration managed to cut off the collection and processing of census data, their communities would "almost certainly be inaccurate and under-represented in the final census."
A federal district court in California ordered the Trump administration not to stop counting until October 31 in a September decision that the 9th Circuit temporarily upheld earlier this month while it continues to investigate the case.
In contradiction, Sotomayor wrote that the government had downplayed the risk of ending the census prematurely by emphasizing that more than 99% of households in 49 states were already eliminated.
"But even a fraction of a percent of the nation's 140 million households equals hundreds of thousands of people who are not counted," wrote Sotomayor. "And what is significant is that the percentage of non-responses is likely to be much higher among marginalized populations and in hard-to-count areas such as rural and tribal areas."
"The damage caused by speeding up this year's census is irreparable. And respondents will suffer from its permanent effects for at least the next 10 years," Sotomayor added.
In a separate case related to the census, the Trump administration is asking the Supreme Court to allow undocumented immigrants to be excluded from the census used to split representation in the House of Representatives.
If the Census Bureau hits the December 31st deadline, the Trump administration will retain control of the split even if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the November 3rd election.
A lower court has blocked the Trump administration's plans to expel undocumented immigrants, and the Supreme Court has not said whether it will look into the matter. The judges are due to discuss the case at their private conference on Friday.
Melissa Arbus Sherry, a partner at Latham & Watkins law firm who argued on behalf of the challengers on the case, said in a statement that the Supreme Court order "reflects the tremendous progress that has been made as a result of the district court's decisions."
"We have come a long way since the district court banned the defendants from prematurely suspending field operations ahead of the September 11th census," she said. "As a result, millions more Americans were counted – a fact used by the defendants themselves as an argument in favor of upholding the injunction."
In a statement released Wednesday morning, Ross said the Supreme Court move "will allow the 2020 census data collection to properly stop and begin processing, which is an important step toward a complete and accurate census."
"Compared to 2000 and 2010, the US Census Bureau counted well over 99.9 percent of all housing units in the nation. Contrary to much of the press coverage of this case, the Supreme Court understood these facts, with only a single judge writing has dissent, "said Ross.