WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday issued two of its most-anticipated rulings of this term, delaying the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census and declaring that federal courts can’t settle partisan gerrymandering disputes.
In a complicated decision regarding the Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the high court agreed with a lower court to send the issue back to the Commerce Department, citing problems with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ rationale for adding the question.
The delay marks at least a partial victory for critics of adding the question, who argued that it would deter people — particularly immigrants and Lantinx Americans — from responding to the census, which could drastically skew the count. Census numbers are used to determine everything from how congressional districts are divvied up to where the government spends cash for programs like Head Start and Medicare.
“It is hardly improper for an agency head to come into office with policy preferences and ideas, discuss them with affected parties, sound out other agencies for support, and work with staff attorneys to substantiate the legal basis for a preferred policy,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.
But, he added, “Altogether, the evidence tells a story that does not match the Secretary’s explanation for his decision. … The explanation provided here was more of a distraction.”
Disappointing but not surprising. This just sharpens the political challenge in PA for all seeking a more fair, more trustworthy mapping process. It's up to us. @DrawTheLinesPA @Committeeof70 @commoncausepa @FairDistrictsPA @LWVPA https://t.co/73AWu8XzNB
— David Thornburgh (@davidthornburgh) June 27, 2019
Ross has said that the plan to revive a citizenship question on the 2020 census was an attempt to bolster the Voting Rights Act. But the Supreme Court majority wrote, “Several points, taken together, reveal a significant mismatch between the Secretary’s decision and the rationale he provided. The record shows that he began taking steps to reinstate the question a week into his tenure, but gives no hint that he was considering VRA enforcement.”
Now it's time for this Admin to put politics aside + focus on getting a full & accurate count in 2020.
— AG Josh Shapiro (@PAAttorneyGen) June 27, 2019
In a statement, Gabe Morgan, the vice president of 32BJ SEIU for Pennsylvania and Delaware, said that while the “decision does not definitely resolve whether the question will be added to the Census, we reaffirm our commitment to ensure that all residents of this nation are counted.
“As one of the nation’s largest unions with a majority-immigrant membership, we cannot allow our families, friends and neighbors to be erased during the 2020 Census,” he continued. “Participating in the Census is a demonstration of our collective power.”
Court won’t wade into partisan gerrymandering
In another blockbuster opinion issued Thursday — the last day of the court’s term — the justices ruled that it’s not their place to settle disputes over partisan gerrymandering.
While #SCOTUS's decision on the legal challenges to partisan gerrymandering is disappointing, we are not backing down in challenging gerrymandering and our fight for #FairMaps across the country in state legislatures, in state courts, & on ballot initiatives. pic.twitter.com/qsWKCZWyYm
— Common Cause PA (@commoncausepa) June 27, 2019
The court split 5-4 along ideological lines in combined high-profile cases surrounding whether state legislators in Maryland and North Carolina went too far when they used politics to redraw congressional districts in their states.
“Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” the conservative majority found in another opinion penned by Roberts.
He was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh.
The court’s conservative wing wrote that judicial interference in the process would be an “unprecedented expansion of judicial power” and would lead to court intervention “unlimited in scope and duration — it would recur over and over again around the country with each new round of districting.”
The North Carolina plaintiffs in the case complained that the state’s redistricting plan discriminated against Democrats, while the Maryland plaintiffs argued that their state’s map discriminated against Republicans.
The court’s liberal wing issued a scathing dissent penned by Justice Elena Kagan.
“For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” she wrote.
“And not just any constitutional violation. The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives.”
Kagan was joined in the dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.
The case has particular implications in Pennsylvania, where Republicans are still smarting over a 2018 decision by the state Supreme Court to toss the state’s former congressional map and to replace it with one drawn by an in-house expert. Republicans complained that the map unfairly advantaged Democrats, who went on to capture formerly Republican seats across the state.
The high court’s ruling “is confirmation of what we’ve known all along: Democrat activists in black robes on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overstepped their bounds by painstakingly reading phantom requirements into the Pennsylvania Constitution to void the 2012 Congressional map and give itself the authority to act as a shadow legislature to force a Democrat-created partisan gerrymander on Pennsylvania,” Bernadette “Bernie” Comfort, the acting chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said in a statement.
The high court’s “decision to shrug at extreme partisan gerrymandering is disappointing, but not surprising,” Chris Satullo, of the good-government, redistricting project Draw the Lines, said in a statement posted to the group’s website. “Pennsylvanians, though, should realize this ruling does not undo progress at slaying the gerrymander in their state. Nor does it thwart the push for state-based reform.”
Carol Kuniholm, chair of the grassroots group Fair Districts PA, said in a statement the “decision makes it all the more important to create an independent commission with clear standards in our state constitution. We have seen too often what happens when politicians draw the lines and how party operatives will always push the limits in their own favor.”
Pennsylvania’s General Assembly considered legislation to create a citizens commission to draw the state’s political boundaries last session, but the bills ultimately went nowhere.