Supreme Court temporarily halts Ross questioning in census suit

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross answers questions during an interview with Reuters in his office at the U.S. Department of Commerce building in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court late on Tuesday temporarily blocked an order forcing Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to be questioned this week by lawyers for states suing over his decision to ask respondents to the 2020 census whether they are citizens.

In a brief order issued on Tuesday night, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put the looming depositions of Ross and a top Justice Department official, John Gore, on hold while the high court further considers the government’s request to shield the officials from questioning.

A New York-based federal appeals court rejected the government’s bid to stop the depositions earlier on Tuesday. Gore’s deposition was scheduled for Wednesday morning, while Ross was to be questioned on Thursday.

The dispute will test the Supreme Court’s views on the level of deference judges should give a president’s cabinet members and other high-ranking officials. It comes as President Donald Trump’s new appointee to the high court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, heard his first arguments on Tuesday morning.

The Trump administration has been vigorously contesting a Sept. 21 ruling by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan that ordered Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, to face a deposition because his “intent and credibility are directly at issue” in the litigation.

The lawsuit, which includes 18 states and a number of cities and counties, was spearheaded by Democratic officials.

The U.S. Constitution mandates a census every 10 years, which is used to allocate seats in Congress and distribute billions of dollars in federal funds.

Critics of adding a citizenship question to the census have said it will deter people in immigrant communities from participating, disproportionately affecting Democratic-leaning states.

The Justice Department told the Supreme Court that Furman exceeded his authority in ordering the depositions and that the states should not be allowed to probe Ross’s “mental processes” over the citizenship question.

Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Leslie Adler