WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed the Trump administration to shut down the census count ahead of schedule, a move that could allow the Census Bureau to submit tabulations excluding unauthorized immigrants by the end of the year.
The court’s brief, unsigned order gave no reasons, which is typical when the court acts on emergency applications. It said the count could stop while appeals moved forward.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying that “the harms associated with an inaccurate census are avoidable and intolerable.”
The order was a major victory for the Trump administration, which had argued that it needed to shut down census field work to meet a statutory deadline. Critics argued that the administration’s plan was aimed at diluting Democratic voting power and would hurt the accuracy of the count.
The administration had proposed various deadlines for completing field work and submitting the results. In April, after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the Census Bureau’s work, it said it would finish counting on Oct. 31 and submit the results in April 2021, after the statutory deadline of Dec. 31.
The administration changed course in August, ordering the field work wrapped up by Sept. 30, and delivery of totals by Dec. 31. The move came not long after the announcement in July that the administration would seek to exclude undocumented immigrants from the population totals it will send to Congress for reapportioning seats in the House.
The two developments appear to be related. Under the old deadlines, the winner of the presidential election would transmit the population totals. Excluding undocumented immigrants from apportionment calculations would generally benefit Republicans.
The National Urban League, the League of Women Voters, other groups and local governments sued, saying the rushed schedule would undermine the accuracy of the census and “facilitate another illegal act: suppressing the political power of communities of color by excluding undocumented people from the final apportionment count.”
Judge Lucy H. Koh, of the United States District Court in Northern California, ordered the bureau to keep working through the Oct. 31 deadline. “Because the decennial census is at issue here, an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade,” she wrote. She also suspended the Dec. 31 statutory deadline for submitting the results.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, turned down a request from the Trump administration to stay Judge Koh’s order and allow it to stop counting before the end of the month. But the panel said it would not bar the administration from trying to comply with the Dec. 31 reporting deadline.
The administration asked the Supreme Court to intervene, saying that only by shutting down field work now could the bureau meet the Dec. 31 deadline, which is set by statute. “The district court’s order constitutes an unprecedented intrusion into the executive’s ability to conduct the census according to Congress’s direction,” Jeffrey B. Wall, the acting solicitor general, told the justices in a brief filed Wednesday.