Our Opinion: Judge stands up for integrity of Census

A federal judge's decision Tuesday against the Trump administration's attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census is a victory for the states, including Massachusetts, that are trying to maintain the integrity of this important process in the face of transparently political challenges to it. The fight isn't over, but the ruling is one more example of the judiciary's critical role in blocking White House attempts to undermine essential components of our democracy.

The White House's bid is contrary to the constitutional mandate that the census count every person in America, regardless of citizenship. The question could discourage non-citizens from filling out the questionnaire out of fear that answering it truthfully could open them up to prosecution. This fear is not unreasonable given the administration's naked hostility toward immigrant groups and its campaign to round up and deport undocumented residents even if it shatters families. An undercounting of residents caused by this question could impact the distribution of federal aid based on population figures. Those figures are also used to determine congressional representation for individual states as well as the makeup of thousands of state and local political districts.

While the Justice Department ordered the addition of the question, testimony in U.S. District Court revealed that the department originally opposed the question and changed its position under pressure from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The Census Bureau opposed adding the question, as did six former Census Bureau directors under both Democratic and Republican presidents, basically for the reasons outlined above. Justice Department officials acknowledged in court that the question was not necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act, as administration officials had claimed.

District Court Judge Jesse M. Furman Tuesday accused Mr. Ross of committing a "veritable smorgasbord" of violations of federal law in ordering inclusion of the question. In his withering opinion, the Judge said Mr. Ross "alternately ignored, cherry-picked, or badly misconstrued the evidence in the record before him; acted irrationally both in light of that evidence and his own stated decisional criteria; and failed to justify significant departures from past policies and practices."

Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey was one of 18 AGs to file suit against the administration's action. Secretary of State William Galvin, who warned early of the potential consequences of the question, welcomed the ruling Tuesday. He has other census battles before him, including the Census Bureau's decision in October not to include any field offices in Western Massachusetts for the census count, as the bureau has routinely done in the past.

This issue is likely to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, where the addition of Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh may help tip the decision in the White House's favor. It is unfortunate that the task of conducting the Census falls to an administration that taints everything it touches with political self-interest, but that is one of the many consequences of the 2016 election. For now, Americans can at least celebrate that the judicial branch has once again held firm in defending constitutional principles.


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