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SCOTUS mostly punts on Census apportionment shenanigans

They seem to be hoping that the problem will solve itself, while applying a partisan litmus test to when it is appropriate for them to step in.

The Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to Donald Trump’s final sabotage of the census on Friday, deeming it premature. Trump seeks to exclude an estimated 10.5 million people from the data used to divide up congressional seats among the states because they are undocumented immigrants. This policy, if successful, would strip seats in the House of Representatives from diverse states with large immigrant communities. Because it has not been implemented, however, the Supreme Court determined, by a 6–3 vote, that the case is not yet ripe for resolution. All three liberal justices dissented.

Friday’s decision in Trump v. New York does not come as a surprise: At oral arguments, several conservative justices seemed to be looking for a way out of deciding whether the president has the power to manipulate the census this way. A few, including Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, even appeared to recognize that Trump’s policy is unlawful. The Constitution requires the apportionment of House seats based on “the whole number of persons in each state,” and the government has never before in history sought to exclude undocumented immigrants. By declaring that an entire class of immigrants are not “persons” who reside in the United States, Trump is trying to pass a modern three-fifths clause—except his policy reduces millions of immigrants to zero-fifths of a person.

Still, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority decided that this threat was insufficient to create a live controversy due to the uncertainty that plagues this case. (It did so in an unsigned opinion apparently joined by all six conservatives.) The federal government does not actually know how many undocumented immigrants live in each state. Trump has directed the Census Bureau to use existing administrative records to obtain these figures. But this process is ongoing, and the bureau has warned that it may not produce the data for weeks—possibly not until Trump has left office. (Joe Biden will undoubtedly retract the policy if it has not yet been executed.) The administration has speculated that it may narrow its goal by excluding only subsets of immigrants, like those in detention. (There are more than 50,000 people in ICE detention today, so even that exclusion could affect apportionment and funding.)

In light of this uncertainty, the majority found that the plaintiffs—which include states that may lose representation and local governments that may lose funding—lacked standing to attack the policy in court. Trump’s policy “may not prove feasible to implement in any manner whatsoever, let alone in a manner substantially likely to harm any of the plaintiffs here,” the majority asserted. In other words, Trump might fail to carry out his scheme, which would spare the plaintiffs any injury. Moreover, if the president only excludes a subset of immigrants, like ICE detainees, the plan might not “impact interstate apportionment.”

The court also found that the case “is riddled with contingencies and speculation,” declaring that “any prediction how the Executive Branch might eventually implement” Trump’s policy is “no more than conjecture.” As a result, “the case is not ripe,” and the plaintiffs must come back when they can contest a more explicit policy. The court clarified that “we express no view on the merits of the constitutional and related statutory claims presented.”

[…]

Friday’s ruling also entrenches a new rule that emerged after Barrett replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Plaintiffs only have standing when they are challenging a policy that the conservatives do not like. In November, by a 5–4 vote, the ultraconservatives blocked a COVID-19 restriction on New York City churches that was no longer in effect. As Roberts explained in his dissent, the restrictions were not in force when the court issued its decision. Yet the court blocked them anyway, reasoning that the governor might enforce them again in the future.

It is difficult to square that decision with Friday’s census punt. Trump has stated his policy in stark terms and directed the government to execute it as soon as possible. There is a serious, looming threat that his administration will carry it out in the near future. No one actually knows whether Biden or Congress can reverse the policy after it has been implemented. Yet the conservative justices still considered the case premature. This inconsistent approach gives the impression that at least five conservative justices are manipulating the rules to roll back blue states’ COVID orders while giving Trump leeway to test out illegal policies. Friday’s decision is not the end of this litigation, and the administration may ultimately fail to rig the apportionment of House seats. It is framed as a modest, narrow, technical decision. But the court has revealed its priorities, and they have nothing to do with restraint.

See here and here for the background. Texas would also likely lose a seat or two if this went into effect, not that you’d know it from the total radio silence of our state leaders. My hope is of course that the Census does not deliver this data before January 20, in which case the Biden administration could just drop the subject and proceed as we have always done. It’s not great that we have to rely on that hope, of course. Daily Kos and TPM have more.

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