A Census employee helps a New Yorker fill out a census form at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem during a 2020 Census drive on September 22.

A Census employee helps a New Yorker fill out a census form at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem during a 2020 Census drive on September 22. lev radin/shutterstock

Supreme Court Sides With Trump on Census, Allowing for Immediate End to Count

Enumeration was under lower court order to keep count going through Oct. 31.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday sided with the Trump administration in allowing the Census Bureau to stop its decennial count, creating an abrupt end more than two weeks before the previously scheduled termination of enumeration activities. 

A lower court had issued an injunction against Census preventing it from ending the count Sept. 30, saying the bureau must instead stick to its original COVID-19 plan to stop the enumeration at the end of October. The Trump administration challenged that decision up the chain, first being rejected at the appellate level before its victory Tuesday at the nation’s highest court. 

The Supreme Court stayed the injunction pending a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The appellate court declined to issue such a stay last week. The Census Bureau announced it would end its in-person enumeration and window for self-response on Thursday, Oct. 15. 

While the administration said it had to cut off the count early to meet its statutory requirement to deliver data by the end of the year, federal judges at the district and appellate level said the need for an accurate and complete count took precedence. Census said its revised plan and an influx of resources has made the extra time superfluous. As of Tuesday, the bureau had enumerated 99.9% of households in the country. The agency did not as of Wednesday disclose if it will still meet its statutory Dec. 31 deadline, though it told the Supreme Court last week "every passing day imposes more harm" on its ability to do so. 

Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross praised Tuesday's decision. 

"Yesterday's action by the United States Supreme Court allows the 2020 Census data collection to come to an orderly end and for data processing to begin, taking an important step toward delivery of a complete and accurate count," Ross said Wednesday. "Unlike much of the press reporting about this case, the Supreme Court understood these facts, with only a single Justice writing in dissent. This is a tremendous accomplishment and I commend everyone at the Census Bureau who helped our country meet this goal."

Census officials, Ross and President Trump have all at various times said it was no longer possible to meet the Dec. 31 deadline to deliver data from the count due to delays already implemented after the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold. Those delays caused Census to develop a new plan in which it would continue counting through Oct. 31 and deliver data in April 2021, but it subsequently changed those deadlines to Sept. 30 and Dec. 31, respectively. Watchdogs such as the Commerce inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have found the truncated timetable risks an incomplete and inaccurate count. The Trump administration has said it must meet its statutory obligation to deliver data by the end of the year.

Census announced after the initial court’s ruling it would end the count by Oct. 5, but the judge blocked that effort as well. The back and forth created confusion and chaos among the hundreds of thousands of Census employees in the field, who reported receiving divergent messaging that may have conflicted with the court’s order.

Only Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted her dissent against the stay.

“Meeting the deadline at the expense of the accuracy of the census is not a cost worth paying, especially when the government has failed to show why it could not bear the lesser cost of expending more resources to meet the deadline or continuing its prior efforts to seek an extension from Congress,” Sotomayor wrote. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., sharply criticized the court's decision. 

"This will allow [Trump's] administration to do what it has always intended to do: undercount in communities that deserve their fair share of representation and federal resources," Hoyer said. "This is yet another example of President Trump and his Republican allies standing against democracy and our Constitution when it suits their partisan purposes.”

Rep. James Comer, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said the Supreme Court made the "sensible" decision. 

"Despite the scare tactics from the left, Americans can have confidence that the 2020 census is counting every resident in the United States and will be accurately and fully completed."

This story has been updated with additional information