Let the first week of July, 2019 be remembered not for 60-ton tanks being dragged into Washington or for vainglorious speeches at the Lincoln Memorial or even for the ethics of flag-imprinted attire, but for the triumph of truth. The Trump administration has more or less admitted defeat in its quest to under-count Latinos in the 2020 census. But the best part, the very best part, is that President Donald Trump was thwarted not by Democrats nor by journalists nor by Hillary Clinton’s email server, his usual adversaries and/or punching bags. This time, his alternative facts were picked apart by a 64-year-old Republican appointee with a conservative political philosophy named John Glover Roberts Jr.
That’s right. This is the week some within the Trump administration are finally admitting that the timetable for the census waits for no man or woman or child and so the forms for the 2020 count will be printed without asking respondents about their citizenship. And it was all made possible by Chief Justice Roberts who sided with the liberals to block that question. What motivated Justice Roberts and four other members of the U.S. Supreme Court to just say no to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and others involved in the decennial head count mandated by the U.S. Constitution? To paraphrase Mr. Roberts, who wrote the 5-4 majority opinion: Liar, liar, pants en fuego.
Actually, the 29-page opinion would have been far more readable if the court had been that direct. Instead, Mr. Roberts took a kinder, gentler approach, chiding Secretary Ross and his crew for claiming that the question was essential to enforcing the Voting Rights Act when that rationale was demonstrably false. As the chief justice observed, voting rights “played an insignificant role in the decision-making process.” Rather, it appeared Mr. Ross wanted the question and then directed staff to justify it. “Altogether,” Mr. Roberts observed, “the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the secretary gave for his decision.”
And what was the real motivation? That’s pretty easy. It was added fairly late in the process when it was brought to the administration’s attention that such a question could help scare off many immigrant and minority households from responding, whether they have legal status or not. The effect? Such individuals would not be counted (as many as 6.5 million, according to one estimate) which has all kinds of long-term consequences for communities where they live. They would lose political clout (states are apportioned congressional districts based on census results) and lose money (federal aid formulas would shortchange immigrant-heavy areas). As Republican strategists have observed, this is generally advantageous for the Grand Old Party.
Make no mistake, the Supreme Court might have sided with the Trump administration if they had simply lied more convincingly. The court left it open for Secretary Ross to provide additional evidence to justify the citizenship question. But the clock ran out. Print deadlines loomed. The court didn’t rule that the citizenship question was bad policy so much as it was blatantly insincere policy. And we can’t help but note that the far-right on the court were fine with that. As Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissent, the Supreme Court has for the first time ever, invalidated an agency action “solely because it questions the sincerity of the agency’s otherwise adequate rationale.”
Yes, facts matter. That’s why Mr. Roberts earned honorary fact-checker status from the Alternative Fact of the Week crew. This isn’t the first time a court has stymied presidential lies. (Remember Muslim Ban 1.0? The federal courts said no to that January 2017 presidential decree within days; it was only a third iteration that passed Supreme Court muster one year ago.) Hopefully, this high court decision will stick, but the tweeter-in-chief is still swinging, writing on Wednesday morning that reports of the Commerce Department is dropping the question about citizenship are “FAKE.” But since when can the American people rely on the fellow in the Oval Office to give them a straight story about anything? Hint: You don’t need a seat on the Supreme Court or even a law degree to know the answer to that one.