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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 a potential 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.
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.
Census officials, Commerce Secretary Wilbur 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.
Eric Katz is a senior correspondent with Government Executive.
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