President Donald Trump really wants the 2020 census to ask everyone in the United States if they are a US citizen. The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the rationale provided by his administration in adding the question was a fake pretext, casting doubt on whether there’s enough time to actually put the question on the forms.
But Trump wants it anyway. And if his Twitter feed is any indication, the administration will continue to fight for it:
Seems totally ridiculous that our government, and indeed Country, cannot ask a basic question of Citizenship in a very expensive, detailed and important Census, in this case for 2020. I have asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long, until the.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 27, 2019
Trump and his “lawyers” have some opportunity to fight for the reinstatement of the citizenship question. Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling gave the agency the chance to offer a more honest explanation of why the Commerce Department decided to ask about citizenship on the census, rather than saying it was necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act (which the justices dismissed as a fig leaf).
But in order to successfully reinstate the question, they’ll need to offer an explanation that passes court muster in this case and win a separate case in Maryland examining whether the citizenship question was added out of a racist intent to marginalize Latinx voters.
The problem is that it’s mid-2019, and the census takes months of preparation. The Commerce Department set a deadline of June 30 — this coming Sunday — to finalize the forms and send them to the printer. A Census Bureau official has testified that in an emergency, with “extraordinary effort,” the bureau could finalize the forms as late as October and still print them in time for the census to begin in spring. But that still doesn’t give the administration much time.
That’s why Trump is now asking “the lawyers,” apparently, if the census itself can be delayed.
I am not a lawyer, just a journalist who knows how to use the internet (shoutout to Cornell for hosting a website that posts the entire US Code section by section). But I can tell the president that he cannot, in fact, delay the census.
Not only does the Constitution require a decennial census, but the federal Census Act is extremely clear on when that census must take place.
Title 13 of the US Code, section 141, is extremely clear on this point:
(a) The Secretary [of Commerce] shall, in the year 1980 and every 10 years thereafter, take a decennial census of population as of the first day of April of such year, which date shall be known as the “decennial census date”...
If Trump wants the lawyers to get the citizenship question reinstated, they should probably get cracking in coming up with the alternative rationale the Supreme Court asked for — not trying to find a way around an unusually clear provision of federal law.