Roberts divides the baby

Chief justice tips scales to OK gerrymandering, but nixes citizenship question on census

The U.S. Supreme Court found the scales of justice tipping back and forth in a pair of controversial rulings on Thursday. (Flickr/Justin)

The U.S. Supreme Court found the scales of justice tipping back and forth in a pair of controversial rulings on Thursday. (Flickr/Justin)

By Ted Cox

The U.S. Supreme Court split the difference on a pair of controversial rulings Thursday.

In majority opinions written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the high court said it had no standing to overrule state legislatures on gerrymandered districts, but then nixed the Trump administration’s proposal to add a citizenship question to the U.S. Census next year.

The issues, while thorny, are both key to representative democracy. Gerrymandered districts can concentrate voting factions in just a few districts, leaving the other party to control the rest, whether or not it has a majority of voters in the state. The U.S. citizenship question, meanwhile, threatened to discourage participation by immigrant communities in the 2020 U.S. Census, which will also determine representation in Congress.

The census case, Department of Commerce v. New York, was considered a win for advocates of voting rights, even though it had only a tangential application to elections. President Trump wanted to add a question on citizenship to next year’s U.S. Census, which will be used to determine representation in Congress and various aspects of federal funding.

Critics said a citizenship question — which has been routinely ruled out in the past — would discourage undocumented immigrants and those sympathetic to immigrants from taking part, especially given President Trump’s recent threat to conduct immigration raids in cities like Chicago. That would ultimately result in an undercount of the immigrant population.

The census is legally required to count all residents, not just U.S. citizens. The Chicago Urban League put out a study earlier this year warning that an undercount of the Illinois population could result in the loss of congressional seats in the House of Representatives and $1 billion in federal funding. Members of the Illinois congressional delegation said the citizenship question could skew results and called for an accurate population count.

Last week, Gov. Pritzker signed an executive order setting down conditions for an accurate census count, which had already been budgeted for $29 million in outreach to achieve full participation. Pritzker endorsed the Supreme Court ruling Thursday, while also offering some harsh criticism for the Trump administration.

“This citizenship question was designed solely to stoke fear in our immigrant communities and while today’s Supreme Court ruling was encouraging, I urge the courts to fully strike down this damaging proposal,” Pritzker said in a statement repeated on Twitter. “This is nothing more than a poorly disguised attempt by the Trump administration to force communities into the shadows and ensure an undercount, and there is no place for that in Illinois. My administration is devoting $29 million, the largest per-person allocation of any state this year, to ensure an accurate count in the 2020 census. We will protect the resources our communities rely on to thrive and keep Illinois a welcoming state for all of our residents.”

Calling the Supreme Court decision “welcome news,” U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said, “I have been opposed to the citizenship question in the 2020 Census since it was first announced. As I suspected, the Trump administration added the citizenship question to decrease census participation by racial minorities and immigrants. If we aren’t counted in the census, then we don’t count fully in our democracy. This is wrong.

“The citizenship question was added solely for political purposes,” he added. “The Supreme Court saw past the administration’s lies and ordered the question be removed.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot labeled it an “effort to politicize the census” and “a tactic to intimidate immigrants, reduce resources and representation for welcoming cities like Chicago, and undermine our democracy.”

Although Roberts’s ruling left open the possibility that the administration could come back and present a different legal justification, many believed it ruled the question out for the 2020 U.S. Census, which was scheduled to begin printing forms next week. Others warned the administration could delay printing until it could reargue the case, and Trump himself tweeted that he could try to delay the census entirely — “I have asked the lawyers if they can delay the census, no matter how long” — a position not likely to be endorsed by the high court.

“The Supreme Court opened the door for the Trump administration to come back with another excuse for a citizenship question,” Lightfoot said. “Chicago will fight any attempt and always uphold the rights of every resident.”

Roberts’s opinion, complicated by what The New York Times called a “fractured” court, didn’t ban a citizenship question, but instead found that the Trump administration’s rationale for it was “contrived.” Nate Silver’s website warned that the Trump administration could quickly turn around and attempt to reargue the case.

The New York Times found that “the key passage in the chief justice’s majority opinion was joined only by the court’s four-member liberal wing.”

That was not the case on the gerrymandering decision, in which Roberts returned to the conservative 5-4 majority on the court. He wrote in no uncertain terms: “We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” in effect ruling out legal challenges except within each state.

The word “gerrymander” was coined more than 200 years ago, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry was accused of drawing one district to look like a salamander. It’s a political device used by both major parties, but Republicans have concentrated on controlling state houses and governorships and have benefited most from it in recent decades.

That’s not the case in Illinois, where Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion at the last U.S. Census in 2010 and will again next year with Gov. Pritzker. The 4th Congressional District held by Garcia is shaped like a vise, running from Hispanic areas on Chicago’s West Side into the western suburbs and back into the South Side — to cite just one example. But while many in both parties have said gerrymandering is wrong and should be abolished, others say it’s a national issue that has to be settled at the federal level, so that some states aren’t adopting reforms while others remain resistant.

Thursday’s court decision on Rucho v. Common Cause concerned legislative maps drawn by Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland, but Roberts ruled federal courts had no standing to weigh in on either, no matter how egregious the gerrymandering.

That argue failed to sway the court’s four left-wing members. Much as she did last year in the Janus decision, Justice Elena Kagen issued a blistering dissent, stating: “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.” She was joined in the dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer.