close up of 2020 census document form and ballpoint pen on American flag

Department of Commerce v. New York: The Question of Citizenship


The United States Census has been taken every ten years since 1790. The census aims to gather information about the population, which is then utilized to calculate the number of seats each state will have in the United States House of Representatives. The census has never directly asked if the respondent is a citizen of the United States. However, under President Donald Trump’s administration, the United States Census Bureau planned to include the question, “Is this person a citizen of the United States,” on the 2020 census form that will be sent to all households in the country. 

On June 27, 2019, the United States Supreme Court blocked the plan to include the citizenship question on the census because the government gave a “contrived” reason for requesting the information. However, the court didn’t rule out the possibility of any future citizenship questions. 

Why inquiring about citizenship is controversial

On the surface, it may seem appropriate for a national government to ask its inhabitants about citizenship. After all, accurate citizenship information could help the United States enforce laws against discrimination and fund educational programs for foreign-born students. Even so, the census is the wrong place for the government to ask every household in the United States for the number of citizens residing there. The primary goal of the census is to count every person in the nation, but by inquiring about information that may put non-citizens at risk, the response rate to the census will be much lower than necessary.

According to New York Attorney General Letitia James, an untested citizenship question “could have caused a substantial undercount, particularly of noncitizens and Latinos.” Therefore, states, counties, and cities that are home to large groups of immigrants or Hispanics would likely be most affected by an inaccurate population count. For example, immigrants and Hispanics generally vote for the Democratic Party in elections. However, congressional districts may be redrawn according to the census data, and if the population of an area is undercounted, that area may be combined with another congressional district. Consequently, the state would lose seats in the House of Representatives that may have usually gone to Democratic politicians. 

The United States Supreme Court’s decision

The proposal to add an untested citizenship question to the 2020 census arrived to the United States Supreme Court after multiple defeats in lower courts. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross reported that the primary reason the United States government wanted to include a citizenship question on the census was to better uphold the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lower courts accused the Commerce Department of committing “a veritable smorgasbord”  of infractions under the Administrative Procedure Act. These purported misbehaviors include lying about the true reason for wanting to include a citizenship question on the census, neglecting to account for the evidence that clearly states asking a citizenship question will result in an undercount of the population, and defying clear sections of the Census Act. 

In a 5-to-4 split decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration could not add the citizenship question to the 2020 census for now. The Court blocked the citizenship question solely because the Department of Commerce’s reasoning for including the question was pretextual. It is illegal for an agency to make a decision without disclosing the true reasons for their actions. In this case, the Supreme Court believed that “accepting” the Department of Justice’s “contrived reasons” for the implementation of a citizenship question on the census “would defeat the purpose of the enterprise.” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, stating that “the explanation provided here was more of a distraction.” Roberts included information about how Ross was “determined to reinstate a citizenship question from the time he entered office” and “instructed his staff to make it happen.” However, the Supreme Court overturned the other violations that lower courts accused the Department of Commerce of committing. 


The Supreme Court’s decision in Department of Commerce v. New York has far-reaching implications for both the Trump administration and the United States Census in general. The Supreme Court did not completely overturn the Department of Commerce’s plan to include a citizenship question on the census; the ruling only blocked the inclusion of the citizenship question because of “the evidence [telling] a story that does not match the Secretary’s explanation for his decision.” The court technically approved the legality of the government directly asking about citizenship in a large-scale census. The opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts reads that Secretary Ross has the right to inquire about citizenship because Congress’s authority over the census “has been open, widespread, and unchallenged since the early days of the Republic.” 

It is too late for the Trump administration to alter their explanation regarding the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census because the questionnaire began printing at the end of July. Still, the Supreme Court’s ruling creates the potential for a future presidential administration to present a sincere reason for asking about citizenship on the census. According to the results of Department of Commerce v. New York, a citizenship question would be allowed on the United States Census under the aforementioned circumstances. While the 2020 census will be free of questions regarding citizenship, the future of the United States Census remains murky.

Caroline Kincaid is a sophomore from Venice, Florida. She is pursuing a double major in history and public policy.
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