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Supreme Court allows Trump administration to end census count early

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, writing, "The harms caused by rushing this year's census count are irreparable."
Image: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Seattle
Signs advertising the 2020 census cover a boarded-up business amid the pandemic in Seattle in March.Brian Snyder / Reuters file

The Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively allowed the government to stop the census count immediately, blocking a lower court order that would have required the Trump administration to continue gathering census information in the field until the end of October.

The Census Bureau said it wanted to stop the count so that it could start processing the data to meet a Dec. 31 deadline, set in federal law, for reporting the results to the president. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the government to keep going with its field work until Oct. 31, concluding that a longer time in the field would increase accuracy.

In a brief unsigned order, the Supreme Court stayed the appeals court order.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, writing, "The harms caused by rushing this year's census count are irreparable." The states and groups seeking to keep the count going "will suffer their lasting impact for the next ten years," until the next census is conducted.

This year's process of conducting the population count began on time, but field operations were suspended in March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Commerce Department asked Congress for a four-month delay in the deadline for reporting the results, but that request went nowhere.

"There is virtually no prospect that the Bureau will be able to comply with the statutory deadline," the Justice Department told the Supreme Court, unless it can stop gathering data in the field and start processing it. The Census Bureau said it must have time to "analyze, correct, and integrate a vast array of data" to produce accurate results by the end of the year.

"As of today, well over 99.9% of housing units have been accounted for in the 2020 Census," the bureau said in a statement on Tuesday. "Self-response and field data collection operations for the 2020 Census will conclude on October 15, 2020."

Separately, the Trump administration is asking the Supreme Court to let the government report two census figures to the president — one tabulated the usual way and the other omitting people who are undocumented immigrants. A lower court blocked the government from leaving them out of the count.

The Justice Department is asking the court to hear and decide that case by the end of the year, but the court hasn't yet said when it will take up that issue.

"The Supreme Court’s decision to enable the President’s shameful campaign to curtail the Census is regrettable and disappointing," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement after the ruling. "Further, the President’s actions threaten to politically and financially exclude many in America’s most vulnerable communities from our democracy."