Editorial crossposted from The New York Times, May 30, 2019. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on this case this month.
A trove of documents brought to the attention of the Supreme Court on Thursday makes it hard to see the Trump administration’s efforts to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census as anything but a partisan power grab.
The court will decide before the end of June whether Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, was justified under federal law in adding the citizenship question — a move that would nearly certainly lead to a serious undercount of Hispanics in immigrant-rich communities. During a hearing on the case in April, it appeared that a majority of the justices was prepared to allow the administration to include the question.
But the explosive new evidence disclosed by the plaintiffs in the case ought to give the justices pause about the ruling they’re about to issue. This is one of the most consequential cases before the court this term. The decision on it will have far-reaching effects on the distribution of political power and federal funding across the country for the next decade and beyond.
According to the plaintiffs who brought the New York challenge to the citizenship question, Mark Neuman, a key adviser to Mr. Ross on census issues, and John Gore, a Justice Department official who oversees voting rights enforcement, gave false or misleading testimony during the course of the litigation about why the Trump administration was so intent on including a citizenship query in the decennial count.
As detailed in The Times and in court filings on Thursday, Thomas Hofeller, a longtime Republican expert on redistricting who died last year, was a major force behind adding the citizenship question to the census. The plaintiffs say in the court filings that Trump administration officials concealed his role in the matter “through affirmative misrepresentations” that may merit sanctions against government officials.
Judge Jesse Furman of Federal District Court, the first of three judges to strike down the citizenship question, has asked the Justice Department to respond to the charges and has scheduled a hearing for next week.
Lawyers challenging the citizenship question told Judge Furman on Thursday that, according to a 2015 study written by Mr. Hofeller, adding a citizenship question would create “a structural electoral advantage” that would benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic whites. The documents were unearthed last year by Mr. Hofeller’s estranged daughter, who found them among his effects on four external hard drives and 18 thumb drives.
The files show that he wrote to President Trump’s transition team to tack the question onto the census and helped to write a draft Justice Department letter claiming that the question was needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That was the pretext the administration later used to justify its decision to include it — and which Judge Furman rejected.
Mr. Neuman admitted in a deposition last year that Mr. Hofeller was the first person to suggest the addition of the citizenship question. The plaintiffs accuse Mr. Neuman and Mr. Gore of providing false testimony in their explanations for this whole charade.
“The new evidence demonstrates a direct through-line from Mr. Hofeller’s conclusion that adding a citizenship question would advantage Republican and non-Hispanic whites” to the rationale advanced by the Justice Department, the lawyers wrote.
In a civil rights case, this would be powerful evidence that the Trump administration took the action for the express purpose of disadvantaging minorities. This, however, is a case dealing with administrative rules, which require officials to act in good faith and offer legitimate reasons for advancing a particular policy goal.
An accurate and fair count of everyone in America isn’t just any policy goal. There’s much at stake with the 2020 census — from the future of the next redistricting cycle to how billions of dollars in federal funding will be allocated. The Supreme Court should see this new evidence for what it seems to reveal: A blatant attempt to rig a constitutional mandate.