State officials, congressional representatives and advocates in New Jersey cheered the U.S. Supreme Court’s Thursday decision rejecting, at least for the moment, the federal Commerce Department’s effort to include a citizenship question on next year’s census.
It’s unclear, however, whether the 5-4 ruling is the last word on the matter, as the justices sent the case back to a federal trial court to allow Commerce to try to further justify the inclusion of the question.
But with census officials on a tight deadline to print the questionnaires, many are saying it is unlikely reconsideration of the case could make it through the court system in time to impact this national population count.
Also uncertain is whether the ruling might impact state funding for census-outreach efforts. Gov. Phil Murphy had included $2 million in his budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year. Advocates said that was not enough and lawmakers added another $7 million in the spending plan they sent him last week. At least some of that money, legislators and advocates had argued, would be necessary to counteract the chilling effect of a citizenship question. With that prospect now much less likely, Murphy might feel comfortable in using the line-item veto on that spending.
Getting an accurate census count is a big deal, because both federal funding — an estimated $23 billion in aid to New Jersey in 2016 — and the number of members the state gets in the House of Representatives are determined by the decennial enumeration of the population.
The Census Bureau recently confirmed in a report that the inclusion of a citizenship question would lead to an 8 percent drop in the response rate by households with at least one non-citizen member — roughly 28 percent of all households nationwide. The authors said a citizenship question would result in “increasing costs and reducing the quality of the population count.”
Big issue for New Jersey
Peter Chen, policy counsel at Advocates for Children of New Jersey and coordinator of the Census 2020 NJ Coalition, said that the organizations working to maximize the state’s count will continue to stress that the inclusion of a question could adversely impact New Jersey even more than other states because of the diversity of the population here. The most recent estimates from the Census Bureau put New Jersey’s population at 55 percent non-Hispanic white.
“The removal of the citizenship question from the census form will lift the culture of fear that might have prevented families from filling out the census and remove an obstacle towards an accurate count,” Chen said. “We must continue to raise our voices to ensure maximum participation and inclusion in the 2020 census — particularly among hard-to-count communities like people of color, urban and low-income households, immigrants, limited-English proficient populations and young children.”
In its ruling, the high court held that the department must provide a reasoned explanation for reinstating a question not used since 1950 and found Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s stated reason — that it was necessary to help the government enforce the Voting Rights Act — “contrived” and “a distraction.”
The court sent the case back to the Southern District of New York, where state attorneys general — including New Jersey’s Gurbir Grewal — and advocates have filed lawsuits seeking to block the question. The ruling gives Commerce a chance to offer a justification that can pass legal scrutiny.
Timing is a big question
Originally, officials with the U.S. Census Bureau had set Monday as a deadline for printing paper questionnaires, although others have said they could delay the printing until the end of October. The Commerce Department did not indicate whether it would try again to justify the question and, given the looming deadline, there are doubts whether the case could wind its way back through the courts in time.
“There simply isn’t time,” said Cynthia Clark, executive director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics. “Any delay in printing puts the entire operation at risk, and will impact how all other operations are conducted. The Supreme Court issued a reasonable decision. It is time to focus all our attention on getting the most accurate count possible.”
“We are cautiously encouraged by the Supreme Court’s decision,” said Patricia D. Williamson, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s New Jersey Counts Project, which is primarily focused on census outreach to black communities. “The Commerce Department should respect this decision and proceed to prepare a 2020 Census that does not include the citizenship question.
But on Twitter, President Donald Trump said he “asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long” to try to get this through the courts. The Constitution requires the conducting of a count every 10 years and it counts all residents of the United States, including non-citizens and undocumented immigrants.
U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th), said that he hopes any future court proceedings will continue to keep the question from the census.
“Our national count is sacred, and Trump’s attempt to corrupt it is born of divisive racism to further imbalance our political system towards rural areas at the expense of disenfranchising minority communities,” he said. “This debasement is about cementing right-wing political power and nothing else. My hope now is that the lower courts will weigh the overwhelming evidence of lying, malfeasance, and corruption at the highest levels of this administration.”
State budget impact
Gov. Phil Murphy also praised the decision, saying the inclusion of a citizenship question had been politically motivated.
“The addition of such a question would be nothing more than an attempt to intimidate immigrant communities and reduce federal funding and political representation for diverse states like New Jersey,” he said. “The Supreme Court’s decision will give the Department of Commerce an additional opportunity to justify its decision, meaning that this fight is far from over. While the final outcome is still unknown, my administration will continue to pursue all avenues to oppose a citizenship question and will always stand up for the right of all New Jersey residents to be fairly and accurately counted.”
Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex), a member of the state’s Complete Count Commission, said that she hopes Murphy’s support for an accurate count extends to maintaining the funds lawmakers added to his budget to facilitate that effort. The commission held hearings and has drafted recommendations of actions the state should take to boost public participation in the census. In 2010, 74 percent of New Jerseyans answered the census.
“A complete and accurate count is tremendously important and I have worked hard with my colleagues in the Legislature and advocacy organizations to ensure that New Jersey has the funding necessary to achieve a complete count,” she said. “This is why the Democratic Legislature’s budget that we sent to the Governor includes an additional $7 million in funding for the Complete Count Commission that will help ensure the 2020 census is fair and accurate.”
She and others noted there are still challenges to overcome, including a hard-to-count child population, the Census Bureau’s preference to get people to respond online rather than by paper form and major cuts to the bureau’s budget.
These are why New Jersey cities have mobilized significant efforts including local community groups to try to get as many residents as possible to fill out the census forms.
“In Newark, we will double and redouble our work to make sure that every single resident is counted knowing that even without Trump’s odious question, undocumented people remain fearful of any contact with government,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “Today’s decision was one step in the right direction to a much bigger fight.”