WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's administration said Tuesday that it had ordered the U.S. Census Bureau to start printing forms for the 2020 census without a question about citizenship, abandoning its bid to add the query after being blocked last week by the Supreme Court.
The decision was a victory for critics who said the question was part of an administration effort to skew the census results in favor of Republicans.
Last week after the Supreme Court's decision, Trump said he was asking his lawyers to delay the census, "no matter how long," in order to fight for the question in court.
But Justice Department spokesman Kelly Laco confirmed Tuesday that there would be "no citizenship question on 2020 census."
It was unclear what prompted the administration to walk away from the effort.
Word of the action came in a one-sentence email from the Justice Department to lawyers for plaintiffs in a New York lawsuit that sought to block the question's inclusion.
The email offered no explanation, but the administration faced weeks or months of additional legal challenges about the question even as the Census Bureau said it had to begin printing questionnaires by Monday to meet the April 2020 deadline for conducting the census.
The Supreme Court had rejected the administration's stated reason for adding the question to the census form, and while its decision was not conclusive, the justices placed a daunting hurdle before the government.
"The Supreme Court's ruling left little opportunity for the administration to cure the defects with its decision to add a citizenship question and, most importantly, they were simply out of time given the deadline for printing forms," Kristen Clarke, executive director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in an email.
For months, the Trump administration had argued that the courts needed to decide quickly whether the citizenship question could be added because of the deadline to starting printing materials this week.
On Twitter Tuesday night, Trump wrote that the Supreme Court ruling marked a "very sad time for America." He also said he had asked the Commerce and Justice departments "to do whatever is necessary to bring this most vital of questions, and this very important case, to a successful conclusion."
Even though the Census Bureau is relying on most respondents to fill out the questionnaire by Internet next year, hundreds of millions of printed postcards and letters will be sent out in March reminding people about the census, and those who don't respond digitally will be mailed paper questionnaires.
Opponents of the citizenship question said the query would discourage participation by people in the country illegally, resulting in inaccurate figures for a count that determines the distribution of some $675 billion in federal spending and how many congressional districts each state gets.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement Tuesday evening that he respected the Supreme Court but strongly disagreed with its ruling.
"The Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question," he said. "My focus, and that of the Bureau and the entire Department is to conduct a complete and accurate census."
Top congressional Democrats hailed Tuesday's news. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it "a welcome development for our democracy," while Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer promised his party "will be watching the Trump administration like a hawk to ensure there is no wrongdoing throughout this process and that every single person is counted."
Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which was among the plaintiffs trying to block the question, said, "Everyone in America counts in the census, and today's decision means we all will."
The administration's decision appeared to end a yearlong battle over whether the Commerce Department broke the law when it decided in March 2018 to tack a citizenship question on to the census, long after other aspects of the questionnaire had been finalized.
The department, which oversees the Census Bureau, had argued that the Justice Department needed a more accurate count of citizens to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but three lower courts ruled that that was a pretext for some other unstated goal.
The department's explanation was further undermined in May after plaintiffs uncovered computer files from deceased Republican political strategist, Thomas Hofeller, who had first urged the incoming Trump administration in 2016 to consider adding the question to the next census.
The files included a study in which Hofeller concluded that a citizenship question was central to a strategy to increase Republican political power by excluding noncitizens and people under voting age from the census figures used for drawing new political boundaries in 2021.
The disclosure led to the reopening of one of the lawsuits opposing the question, and plaintiffs were scheduled to begin new efforts this month to prove that the question was an effort to discriminate against Hispanics for political gain.
On Tuesday, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing plaintiffs in that suit, indicated that it was unwilling to end the lawsuit without further assurances from the administration that the issue of the citizenship question had been fully resolved.
Thomas Saenz, the organization's president and general counsel, said his group wanted to make sure there wasn't any misinformation spread about there still being a citizenship question.
"No matter what happens, there's still a lingering hardship from how long the administration had this hanging out there and the publicity it got," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael Wines of The New York Times; and by Mike Schneider, Mark Sherman and Andrew Oxford of The Associated Press.
A Section on 07/03/2019
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