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Balance of Power

Census Case Has Long-Term Implications for Representational Government

The Trump administration wants the Supreme Court to make an exception to the regular judicial process and decide this spring whether the next census may include a question about citizenship.

The dispute is central to the way representational democracy will play out across the country for a decade, not just in Congress but also in statehouses and at city halls. And the Justice Department says it needs a resolution before the court recesses in late June, so that census forms can be printed in time for the April 2020 national head count.


Asking a citizenship question would likely lower the response rates in immigrant-rich areas, in turn altering the way as many as half a dozen House seats are apportioned among the states. And, while the Constitution mandates that congressional seats be distributed among the states based on total population, states and localities have considerable leeway to consider citizenship when drawing their maps. Also at stake is the allocation every year of tens of billions of dollars in federal aid doled out on the basis of the population count.

The administration says the question is necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act. But 18 states and several cities and jurisdictions, along with civil rights groups, sued to prevent it from being asked, alleging in part that the motive is to dissuade undocumented immigrants from answering the questionnaire. And last week a federal trial judge took their side, ruling that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross broke a "veritable smorgasbord" of rules in overriding career officials who said it would make the census less accurate.

The administration asked the court to review that decision by bypassing the usual intermediate appeals court and holding oral arguments in April or even May.

Ross, meanwhile, has agreed to testify about the census controversy before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on March 14, one of its first high-profile sessions since Democrats took control of the chamber, especially now that President Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen has called off his appearance.

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