WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday injected himself into one of the most consequential cases of the current Supreme Court term, saying the nation’s 2020 census would be “meaningless” without adding a citizenship question to the questionnaire.
The comment on Twitter came ahead of an expected Supreme Court ruling by the end of June on whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to add the citizenship question violated federal law.
“Can you believe that the Radical Left Democrats want to do our new and very important Census Report without the all important Citizenship Question,” Trump tweeted. “Report would be meaningless and a waste of the $Billions (ridiculous) that it costs to put together!”
Trump’s critics have accused the White House of encouraging an undercount by dissuading Hispanics and other immigrants from participating in the census, disproportionately affecting Democratic-leaning states and municipalities.
Many states, cities and civil rights groups have gone to court over the citizenship question, which is among a series of White House policies signaling tighter control over immigration.
These include Trump’s declaration in February of a national emergency to obtain funds for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and his threat to close the border as soon as this week, disrupting legal crossings as well as trade.
The U.S. Constitution requires a census counting the number of residents every 10 years.
Results are used to draw political boundaries, allocate seats in Congress and at the state and local level, and distribute roughly $800 billion of federal funds.
“The census is the administration’s new front on its war on immigration and, sadly, the president’s tweet today bears out that concern,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director on the House census oversight committee who now advises groups seeking an accurate 2020 count.
When Ross announced the addition of a citizenship question in March 2018, he said it was in response to a Department of Justice request for data to help enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects eligible voters from discrimination.
Only U.S. citizens can vote in federal elections. Non-citizens comprise about 7 percent of the 328.7 million people living in the United States. Census questionnaires have not included a citizenship question since 1950.
The Supreme Court is reviewing a Jan. 15 ruling by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan that Ross broke a “veritable smorgasbord” of federal rules by adding the question, a decision he called “arbitrary and capricious.”
Furman also said the Voting Rights Act was as a “pretextual” rationale for adding the question, a decision that Ross had “already made for other reasons.”
The judge said the change would cause many states to lose federal funding, while Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas would lose congressional seats.
Furman, an appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama, stopped short of a finding that Ross intended to discriminate against immigrants.
Oral arguments at the Supreme Court are scheduled for April 23.
Steven Dillingham, who became director of the U.S. Census Bureau in January, declined to discuss Trump’s tweet but said the bureau was focused on obtaining a full, complete count.
He spoke to reporters at a press briefing on Monday, one year before National Census Day marking the 2020 count.
Furman’s decision came in a lawsuit brought by 18 U.S. states, 15 cities and a variety of civil rights groups.
In urging the Supreme Court to overturn Furman’s ruling, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, representing the Justice Department, said Ross had discretion to add the citizenship question, and that there was a “long pedigree” in the census for asking about citizenship or country of birth.
He also said other democracies including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, Spain and the United Kingdom ask about citizenship on their censuses.
Another federal judge, Richard Seeborg in San Francisco, on March 6 also declared the citizenship question illegal.
Following that ruling, the Supreme Court said it will also decide whether Ross’ actions violated the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause, which sets out terms for counting people.
Adding the citizenship question could lead to an undercount of 4.2 million Hispanics alone, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy estimated last month.
Reporting by Susan Heavey and Lauren Tara LaCapra in Washington, and Nick Brown and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Susan Thomas and Bill Trott