MANHATTAN (CN) – Standing across the street from the courthouse where a federal judge stopped the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, politicians and activists gathered in a public square on a hot and sunny summer Thursday to cheer the ratification of that ruling by the Supreme Court.
“Today, our democracy withstood a great challenge,” declared New York Attorney General Letitia James, who led the coalition of states and civil society groups in the lawsuit.
For nearly half an hour, more than half a dozen speakers — representing a broad cross section of New York politics and civil society — hailed the decision as a crisis averted. The citizenship question, they said, could have dramatically chilled immigrants of color from participating in the once-in-a-decade survey, weakening political representation and funding in blue states.
“Let me be clear: Today’s decision is a victory for the rule of law and affirms that the Trump administration cannot utilize its constitutional obligation to count us as a tool to harm us,” New York City Census director Julie Menin told cheering activists.
Shortly before the event closed, however, James brought down the heady celebration with a note of uncertainty.
The Supreme Court ruling gave the Commerce Department a narrow window — one that the Trump administration appears eager to crawl right through — to put the citizenship question back in the survey.
“We need some finality and some closure to this because we need to engage in the census as required by the constitution,” James said. “And the constitution is clear: Everyone must be counted.”
Siding with the court’s liberal wing, Chief Justice John Roberts slammed what he found to be a “contrived” explanation from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that the citizenship question would help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act.
“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,” Roberts wrote in one blistering line.
Yet other passages of Roberts’ opinion soothed that blow. Roberts found that Ross had a reasonable basis to add the question, overruling the detailed findings of a federal judge in New York. The high court’s liberal wing, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, rebuked that conclusion in a partial dissent. Roberts also gave Trump’s Commerce Department the opportunity to provide a more convincing rationale, so long as it can do so before the surveys go to print.
The Justice Department warned the Supreme Court just this past Tuesday about the risk of delay.
“Changes to the paper questionnaire after June of 2019 would impair the Census Bureau’s ability to timely administer the 2020 census,” the letter says.
President Donald Trump announced this afternoon meanwhile that he wants to blow right through that deadline.
“I have asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long, until the United States Supreme Court is given additional information from which it can make a final and decisive decision on this very critical matter,” Trump tweeted.
His Justice Department appears to be ready for a protracted battle.
“The Department of Justice will continue to defend this administration’s lawful exercises of executive power,” spokeswoman Kelly Laco said in a cryptic statement.
James told reporters that her team stands ready to oppose any attempt to keep the question on the forms.
“If they come up with another pretext, we’ll see them in court again,” she said.
The Commerce Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
With uncertainty hovering over the 2020 census, the social services that rely on a complete and accurate count also hang in the balance.
“This would have affected our roads, our bridges, our infrastructure, the number of first responders in our community, and so much more,” James said. “All so the hard-earned tax dollars New Yorkers pay so much of could have gone to other states with smaller minority populations.”
Though today’s Supreme Court ruling pertained to the New York census litigation, the citizenship question was also challenged in courts in California, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
Manatt, Phelps & Phillips partner John Libby, an attorney for the city of San Jose in a separate case, said the court’s ruling advanced the cause of the citizenship question’s opponents.
“Well, it’s certainly a victory because the injunctions remain in place,” Libby said in a phone interview, adding that he will be closely watching the government’s next moves.
“Obviously, this is not the end of the story,” he said. “We’re going to have to see what the government decides to do and whether they are going to continue their efforts to add the question.”
Throwing more uncertainty into the mix, two separate courts are considering new evidence that suggests a GOP redistricting expert known as the “Michelangelo of gerrymandering” explicitly designed the citizenship question before he died to benefit white Republicans.
The Supreme Court did not consider the new evidence in its census opinion or partial dissent.
New York Immigration Coalition director Steven Choi urged actives not simply to wait for the courtroom battles to resolve.
“We need to fight in the courts, in the halls of Congress and in the streets,” Choi said. “We need to send a message to Donald Trump and his administration that we know the citizenship question is an attack on us and we are going to fight back.”
His coalition is holding a rally outside of City Hall Park at 5:30 p.m.