The Supreme Court will decide whether the 2020 census can include a question about citizenship that could affect the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives and the distribution of billions of dollars in federal money.
The justices agreed Friday to a speedy review of a lower court ruling that has so far blocked the Trump administration from adding the citizenship question to the census for the first time since 1950.
Both the administration and opponents of the question agreed the court should settle the matter quickly because census forms need to be printed soon.
Arguments will take place in late April. A decision should come by late June.
The case pits the administration against immigrant advocacy organizations and Democratic-led states, cities and counties that argue the citizenship question is intended to discourage the participation of minorities, primarily Hispanics, who tend to support Democrats from filling out census forms.
The challengers say they would get less federal money and fewer seats in Congress if the census asks about citizenship because people with noncitizens in their households would be less likely to fill out their census forms.
The Constitution requires a census count every 10 years. A question about citizenship had once been common, but it has not been asked of every household since 1950. At the moment, the question is part of a detailed annual sample of a small chunk of the population, the American Community Survey.
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The case stems from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' decision in 2018 to add a citizenship question to the next census, over the advice of career officials at the Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department. At the time, Ross said he was responding to a Justice Department request to ask about citizenship in order to improve enforcement of the federal Voting Rights Act.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in New York ruled in January that the question could not be included, saying that fewer people would respond to the census and that the process Ross used was faulty.
Pressed for time, the administration bypassed the federal appeals court in New York and appealed directly to the justices. The challengers defended the lower court ruling, but acknowledged the need for a quick answer to the legal issue.
It's rare for the high court to weigh in without the benefit of appellate rulings. Such interventions usually are reserved for national political crises, including the Pentagon Papers case.
The administration has defended the addition of the citizenship question by arguing that courts have no business second-guessing the commerce secretary in performing a basic function of his job.
But Furman largely agreed with the local and state governments and rights groups that sued over the issue. He pointed out that Ross had ignored his own experts' views that a census with a citizenship question would produce less accurate results and add to the costs.
Documents and testimony produced as part of the trial in New York showed that Ross had begun pressing for a citizenship question soon after he became secretary in 2017, and that he had consulted Steve Bannon, who had been President Donald Trump's top political adviser, and then-Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Emails showed that Ross himself had invited the Justice Department request to add the citizenship question.
The judge's ruling held that Ross' decision about what to ask on the census was "arbitrary and capricious" under the federal Administrative Procedures Act.
There are at least four other ongoing lawsuits over the question, including a trial in San Francisco that was wrapping up Friday. The Supreme Court, though, is expected to settle the matter with the case it has agreed to hear.
Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco was not expected to issue a ruling immediately after closing arguments. He heard nearly a week of testimony last month in the lawsuits, which assert that the question would result in an undercount that would jeopardize federal funding and the state's representation in Congress.