WASHINGTON (CN) - Saying that the evidence plainly undercuts the Trump administration's explanations for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Thursday that the Commerce Department must reconsider the move.
A federal judge who heard the case in New York had gone further, ruling that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had abused his discretion, but the Supreme Court reversed that finding, spurring a partial dissent from the liberal justices.
“The choice between reasonable policy alternatives in the face of uncertainty was the secretary’s to make,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the conservative majority here. “He considered the relevant factors, weighed risks and benefits, and articulated a satisfactory explanation for his decision. In overriding that reasonable exercise of discretion, the court improperly substituted its judgment for that of the agency.”
Roberts' opinion is deeply fractured, with different factions of the court joining and opposing different parts. In the conclusion, which only the liberal justices joined, Roberts balked at the explanation for the census change offered by the commerce secretary.
Ross, who has less than a year to go now before he will administer the once-a-decade U.S. population count, claimed in 2018 that he added the question at the request of the Justice Department, on the basis that it would better help it enforce the Voting Rights Act.
“Altogether, the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the secretary gave for his decision,” Roberts wrote.
“Here the VRA enforcement rationale — the sole stated reason — seems to have been contrived," the chief added.
Back in New York, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman found the VRA justification to be nothing more than a pretext, noting that Secretary Ross had been looking into adding the question long before the Justice Department showed interest. Judges in Maryland and California reached similar conclusions, and, because of the need to print the survey soon, the case took the unusual route of bypassing a federal appeals panel to reach the justices in Washington.
“It is rare to review a record as extensive as the one before us when evaluating informal agency action — and it should be,” Roberts wrote. “But having done so for the sufficient reasons we have explained, we cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given. Our review is deferential, but we are 'not required to exhibit a naiveté from which ordinary citizens are free.'"
Roberts noted that the whole point of administrative law is "to ensure that agencies offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public."
"Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise," he continued. "If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case. In these unusual circumstances, the District Court was warranted in remanding to the agency."