High Court to Rule on Census, Gerrymandering in Final Week

The Supreme Court is seen in Washington as the justices prepare to hand down decisions on June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Nearing the end of its term, the Supreme Court has yet to issue opinions in some of its highest-profile cases, including on the 2020 census, partisan gerrymandering and court deference to administrative agencies.

The court on Monday released four opinions, leaving eight cases argued during the term left awaiting decision. More opinions are expected to be released on Wednesday and the court could add more release days before the end of the month.

Among the cases still awaiting resolution from the justices are four of the most significant the court heard this term.

Atop that list is the dispute over the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, about which the court heard arguments in April. The arguments suggested that a majority of the justices were likely to side with the administration, which activists say could tamp down immigrant response rates to the once-a-decade count, jeopardizing funding for immigrant groups and potentially hurting Democratic voting power.

The case the court heard comes out of New York, where a group of states and nonprofits challenged the citizenship question on the grounds that the Department of Commerce did not follow the proper administrative procedures when deciding to add it.

The challengers also say the agency’s reason for including the question was pretextual. The department said it added the question at the request of the Justice Department to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, but the challengers have said administration officials were looking to add the question long before the Justice Department asked.

A federal judge in New York sided with the states and nonprofits, though a judge in California has issued a broader opinion, striking down the law on both constitutional grounds and under the Administrative Procedure Act. Decided solely under the APA, the case out of New York took the unusual step of skipping the review of a federal appeals court, heading straight to the Supreme Court.

New evidence presented to the federal court in New York has added more intrigue to the case, as the nonprofits claimed a Republican redistricting expert “played a significant,” but previously undisclosed, role in getting the question on the census.

The administration has called the evidence “baseless” and an “eleventh-hour campaign to improperly derail” the Supreme Court case.

Aside from the census case, the court must also still decide twin cases out of Maryland and North Carolina that ask the court to finally step in on the question of when, how, and even if courts should weigh in on accusations that lawmakers took political consideration too far when dividing up their state legislative maps.

The court has struggled for years to set such a standard, including last year when it first heard the case from a group of Maryland Republicans who say the state’s Democratic majority redrew the 6th Congressional District to eliminate a longtime GOP stronghold. The justices sent the case back on procedural grounds last year.

A separate claim out of North Carolina accuses that state’s Republican majority of dividing up the state’s voting districts to make it so that Democrats have little chance of winning seats, even with a national wave election.

With one lawmaker in the state publicly saying the party instructed its redistricting expert to preserve the GOP’s 10-3 majority only “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats,” activists have said the case out of North Carolina presents the court the cleanest look yet at the partisan gerrymandering question.

The court heard arguments in both cases this March, but it was not clear towards which side the justices were likely to tilt in their decision.

In a case with less public intrigue, but of great importance to the power of administrative agencies in the federal government, the court will also hand down a decision in a dispute over when courts should defer to agency interpretations of their own ambiguous regulations.

The court heard arguments in the case in March and appeared likely to at least limit a tenet of administrative law known as Auer deference, under which courts generally give deference to an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulation so long as the interpretation is not “plainly erroneous or inconsistent.”

The challenge to the core holding comes from a veteran named James Kisor, who sought increased benefits after he developed post-traumatic stress disorder from fighting in the Vietnam War.

The issue of courts giving deference to administrative agencies under Auer, and its more famous relative Chevron, has been a key focus of the conservative legal movement and something of a through line for many of the judges President Donald Trump has appointed during his presidency. Trump’s two appointees to the high court, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were among the most active questioners at the oral arguments in the case.

The court also has yet to issue opinions in a case involving the constitutionality of state laws allowing for blood draws from unconscious motorists and a dispute over a law that automatically imposes additional jail time for sex offenders who commit certain additional crimes while on supervised release.

In addition, before the month is out, the court will issue opinions on Tennessee’s residency requirement for companies seeking a liquor license and on a death-row inmate’s claim that a large portion of eastern Oklahoma should be treated for legal purposes as a Native American reservation subject to the jurisdiction of a federal, rather than a state, court.

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