It’s a simple question: Why ask about citizenship on the 2020 Census? Yet the Trump administration continues to fumble for an explanation that will mollify the courts. On Sunday, the Justice Department announced it would replace the legal team defending the administration’s effort, a move that’s virtually unprecedented and that further calls into question the White House’s honesty and motivation. This is a charade on open display that flouts the rule of law and promises to short-change Florida.
The Trump administration reversed course again last week after the Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question on the grounds that the rationale — to better enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act — “appears to have been contrived.” In writing for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts questioned Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ honesty in insisting on the question, writing that “the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the secretary gave for his decision.” The ruling sent the issue back to a lower court, providing the administration a narrow window to take another stab at justifying the question.
The Justice Department said initially it would abandon the fight in the wake of the court ruling, which would have been the smart, practical approach. But President Donald Trump blindsided his own officials by declaring on Twitter that reports the administration would concede were “fake” and vowing to renew the battle. On Wednesday, Justice Department lawyers told a federal judge in Maryland that the Commerce Department would consider a new rationale for the citizenship question. A department attorney said his staff had been “instructed” to explore a path forward, a change in tack the department reaffirmed Friday in federal court only hours after Trump said he would pursue other options for including the question.
This dizzying sequence of events and about-faces makes it abundantly clear that the administration has no legitimate rationale for including the question or even a strategy for including it in the census. Commerce’s initial claim that including it would help protect minority voters by better enforcing the Voting Rights Act was ridiculous on its face. After lower courts had already ruled against the question, more evidence surfaced that the idea was conceived by a Republican strategist as a means of marginalizing minorities and boosting the political clout of non-Hispanic whites. The court majority upheld the rule of law by insisting that the government’s justification pass the smell test.
If a legitimate rationale existed, the administration could, would and should have presented it by now. Continuing to stall for time as the president changes plays indicates the administration has no core basis for asking the question. And the government is running out of time to print millions of forms for an orderly census. Sunday’s announcement that the Justice Department was replacing the legal team on the case spells more chaos, and it signals a backlash from career prosecutors who think the process and legal arguments are fatally flawed.
An accurate count of the population is critical to Florida, because the census determines everything from a state’s share of federal health care, highway and other funds to the number of seats it occupies in the U.S. House. Adding a question that scares minorities or immigrants into hiding would result in a significant under count and only hurt Florida. The administration should drop this effort for a second time. If not, the courts should not indulge it by waiting for another phony rationale that will be no more believable than the first one.