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If you want to understand why the Trump administration is scrambling at the last minute to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census, you have to look beyond the lawsuits filed by Democrats anxious about the question's political impact. The only reason that litigation produced a June 27 Supreme Court decision blocking the question was the blatant, bumbling mendacity of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose rationale for the change Chief Justice John Roberts and four of his colleagues deemed "contrived" and "pretextual."
Whether that conclusion should make a legal difference is a matter of dispute; four justices thought it shouldn't. But if Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau, had told the truth, or even if he had been better at lying, census forms with the citizenship question would already be rolling off the presses.
The evidence that Ross's official explanation—that the Justice Department needed better data to enforce the Voting Rights Act (VRA)—was not the real reason for his decision persuaded three federal judges as well as a majority of the Supreme Court. It is not hard to see why.
"In the Secretary's telling," the Court said, "Commerce was simply acting on a routine data request from another agency. Yet the materials before us indicate that Commerce went to great lengths to elicit the request from DOJ (or any other willing agency)."
That record shows Ross "began taking steps to reinstate a citizenship question about a week into his tenure, but it contains no hint that he was considering VRA enforcement in connection with that project." After making the decision for reasons he has yet to reveal, Ross spent months trying to gin up a respectable excuse.
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