Supreme Court Temporarily Shuts Down Census Data Collection

October 13, 2020 by Dan McCue
The U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court late Tuesday stayed a preliminary injunction that required the Census Bureau to continue to collect data until the end of the month.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh agreed with civil rights groups that argued a plan announced by the Census Bureau to wrap up its data collection operations a month early would result in an under count of minorities, reducing federal and state funding as well as Congressional representation for the areas they live in.

Koh issued her order after wrestling with administration lawyers for weeks over what she has described as its “lurching from one hasty, unexplained plan to the next.”

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit then declined to reverse her order, noting the bureau itself had previously said it needed extra time to continue the count to avoid “risking significant impacts of data quality.”

The bureau itself selected Oct. 31 as its deadline for collecting data due to significant disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

But last week, the bureau changed its mind and asked the Supreme Court to intervene, saying absent a stay, it would not be able to meet its Dec. 31 statutory deadline for reporting census results to the president.

The case is Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, et al. v. National Urban League, et al.

The majority of justices decided Koh’s order should be stayed to allow the Census Bureau to file an appeal either to the full 9th Circuit or the Supreme Court itself.

Should the petition for review by the high court be denied, the stay would terminate automatically. In the event the petition is granted, the stay will end upon a ruling from the court.

The majority did not explain why it granted the bureau’s request, but in a dissent Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the bureau’s current position on when the census should end “is contrary to the government’s repeated assertions to the courts below that it could not meet the statutory deadline under any circumstances.

“Moreover, meeting the deadline at the expense of the accuracy of the census is not a cost worth paying, especially when the Government has failed to show why it could not bear the lesser cost of expending more resources to meet the deadline or continuing its prior efforts to seek an extension from Congress,” she wrote, adding, “This Court normally does not grant extraordinary relief on such a painfully disproportionate balance of harms.”

She closed by saying the Government “has not satisfied its ‘especially heavy burden’ to justify a stay pending appeal of the lower court’s injunction.

 “Because the harms associated with an inaccurate census are avoidable and intolerable, I respectfully dissent from the grant of stay,” Sotomayor wrote.

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