Supreme Court Halts Census Count as Ninth Circuit Case Plays Out

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court granted the Trump administration’s request to halt the 2020 census count on Tuesday evening while litigation unfolds in the Ninth Circuit.

A ruling by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California had extended the national head count until Oct. 31, and two weeks ago the Ninth Circuit refused to push pause on that decision. But the Supreme Court on Tuesday stayed the order, allowing the Census Bureau to end its efforts early. 

This stay is set to last as long as the underlying case – which was brought against the Trump administration by a coalition of civil rights groups like the National Urban League – winds its way through the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in a dissenting opinion Tuesday that rushing this year’s census is not worth the risk of miscounting populations. 

She pointed out that federal judges had decided that continuing the count through Halloween would give more time for the government to conduct an accurate count of all people living in the U.S. She also noted the Census Bureau itself had selected the Oct. 31 deadline in response to the “significant operational disruptions” caused by the Covid–19 pandemic. 

“The government attempts to downplay that risk by asserting that over 99 percent of households in 49 states are already accounted for,” Sotomayor wrote. “But even a fraction of a percent of the nation’s 140 million households amounts to hundreds of thousands of people left uncounted.”

The Trump administration claimed that the Supreme Court’s intervention was necessary because, without a stay, the Census Bureau says it would not be able to meet the Dec. 31 statutory deadline for reporting the first set of census results to the president.  

But Sotomayor didn’t buy it.

“This representation is contrary to the government’s repeated assertions to the courts below that it could not meet the statutory deadline under any circumstances,” she wrote in the seven-page dissent. “Moreover, meeting the deadline at the expense of the accuracy of the census is not a cost worth paying, especially when the government has failed to show why it could not bear the lesser cost of expending more resources to meet the deadline or continuing its prior efforts to seek an extension from Congress.”

She added, “This court normally does not grant extraordinary relief on such a painfully disproportionate balance of harms.”

Melissa Arbus Sherry, a partner at the international law firm Latham & Watkins who helped represent the civil rights groups, said in a statement Tuesday that Sotomayor’s “recognition of the troublesome facts underlying defendants’ conduct highlights the importance of plaintiffs’ efforts in this critical case.”

“We’ve come a long way since the district court enjoined defendants from prematurely winding down census field operations on September 11.  As a result, millions more Americans have been counted—a fact used by defendants themselves as an argument for staying the preliminary injunction,” Sherry said. “Every day has mattered, and the Supreme Court’s order staying the preliminary injunction does not erase the tremendous progress that has been made as a result of the district court’s rulings.”

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