Department of Commerce v. New York

Justia Summary

Under the Census Act, authorized by the Enumeration Clause, the Secretary of Commerce conducts the decennial census “in such form and content as he may determine,” 13 U.S.C. 141(a), aided by the Census Bureau. Census data is used to apportion congressional representatives, allocate federal funds, draw electoral districts, and collect demographic information. All but one survey between 1820 and 2000 asked at least some people about their citizenship or place of birth. In 2010, the citizenship question was moved to the American Community Survey, which is sent annually to a small sample of households.

In 2018, Secretary of Commerce Ross announced that he would reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 census at the request of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which sought census data to use in enforcing the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Secretary indicated that other alternatives had been explored and that he “carefully considered” that reinstating the question could depress the response rate. The plan was challenged under the Enumeration Clause, the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Equal Protection Clause. The Commerce Department’s administrative record indicated that the Secretary began exploring reinstatement of a citizenship question shortly after his 2017 confirmation, attempted to elicit requests for citizenship data from other agencies, and eventually persuaded DOJ to make the request.

The Supreme Court affirmed in favor of the objectors. While the Secretary may inquire about citizenship on the census questionnaire, his decision is reviewable under the APA, except “to the extent that” the agency action is “committed to agency discretion by law.” The Census Act confers broad authority but does not leave the Secretary’s discretion unbounded. The census is not traditionally regarded as “committed to agency discretion.” The Secretary technically complied with the statutes; he explored obtaining the information from other sources, fully informed Congress, and explained his decision. Viewing the evidence as a whole, however, the Court concluded that the decision cannot adequately be explained by DOJ’s request. The Secretary took steps to reinstate the question a week into his tenure, with no concern for VRA enforcement. His staff attempted to elicit requests for citizenship data from other agencies before turning to the VRA rationale. The reasoned explanation requirement of administrative law is meant to ensure that agencies offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public. The Secretary’s explanation “was more of a distraction.”