__ U.S. __, 18-966, Department of Commerce v. New York

Docket Nº:18-966
Citation:__ U.S. __, 139 S.Ct. 2551, 204 L.Ed.2d 978, 27 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 1134
Opinion Judge:ROBERTS Chief Justice.
Party Name:DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE, et al., Petitioners v. NEW YORK, et al.
Attorney:Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco for the petitioners Solicitor General Barbara D. Underwood for respondents New York, et al. Dale E. Ho for respondents New York Immigration Coalition, et al. Douglas N. Letter for the U.S. House of Representatives, as amicus curiae, in support of respondents Pe...
Judge Panel:ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I and II, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts III, IV-B, and IV-C, in which THOMAS, ALITO, GORSUCH, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined; with respect to Part IV-A, in which THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR,...
Case Date:June 27, 2019
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page __

__ U.S. __

139 S.Ct. 2551, 204 L.Ed.2d 978, 27 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 1134

DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE, et al., Petitioners


NEW YORK, et al.

No. 18-966

United States Supreme Court

June 27, 2019

Argued April 23, 2019



In order to apportion congressional representatives among the States, the Constitution requires an "Enumeration" of the population every 10 years, to be made "in such Manner" as Congress "shall by Law direct," Art. I, § 2, cl. 3; Amdt. 14, § 2. In the Census Act, Congress delegated to the Secretary of Commerce the task of conducting the decennial census "in such form and content as he may determine." 13 U.S.C. § 141(a). The Secretary is aided by the Census Bureau, a statistical agency in the Department of Commerce. The population count is also used to allocate federal funds to the States and to draw electoral districts. The census additionally serves as a means of collecting demographic information used for a variety of purposes. There have been 23 decennial censuses since 1790. All but one between 1820 and 2000 asked at least some of the population about their citizenship or place of birth. The question was asked of all households until 1950, and was asked of a fraction of the population on an alternative long-form questionnaire between 1960 and 2000. In 2010, the citizenship question was moved from the census to the American Community Survey, which is sent each year to a small sample of households.

In March 2018, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced in a memo that he had decided to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire at the request of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which sought census block level citizenship data to use in enforcing the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Secretary’s memo explained that the Census Bureau initially analyzed, and the Secretary considered, three possible courses of action before he chose a fourth option that combined two of the proposed options: reinstate a citizenship question on the decennial census, and use administrative records from other agencies, e.g., the Social Security Administration, to provide additional citizenship data. The Secretary "carefully considered" the possibility that reinstating a citizenship question would depress the response rate, the long history of the citizenship question on the census, and several other factors before concluding that "the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden of the question" outweighed fears about a lower response rate.

Here, two separate suits filed in Federal District Court in New York were consolidated: one filed by a group States, counties, cities, and others, alleging that the Secretary’s decision violated the Enumeration Clause and the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act; the other filed by non-governmental organizations, adding an equal protection claim. The District Court dismissed the Enumeration Clause claim but allowed the other claims to proceed. In June 2018, the Government submitted the Commerce Department’s "administrative record"— materials that Secretary Ross considered in making his decision— including DOJ’s letter requesting reinstatement of the citizenship question. Shortly thereafter, at DOJ’s urging, the Government supplemented the record with a new memo from the Secretary, which stated that he had begun considering the addition of a citizenship question in early 2017 and had asked whether DOJ would formally request its inclusion. Arguing that the supplemental memo indicated that the record was incomplete, respondents asked the District Court to compel the Government to complete the administrative record. The court granted that request, and the parties jointly stipulated to the inclusion of additional materials that confirmed that the Secretary and his staff 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 court also authorized discovery outside the administrative record, including compelling a deposition of Secretary Ross, which this Court stayed pending further review. After a bench trial, the District Court determined that respondents had standing to sue. On the merits, it ruled that the Secretary’s action was arbitrary and capricious, based on a pretextual rationale, and violated the Census Act, and held that respondents had failed to show an equal protection violation.

Held :

1. At least some respondents have Article III standing. For a legal dispute to qualify as a genuine case or controversy, at least one plaintiff must "present an injury that is concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent; fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged behavior; and likely to be redressed by a favorable ruling." Davis v. Federal Election Comm’n, 554 U.S. 724, 733, 128 S.Ct. 2759, 171 L.Ed.2d 737. The District Court concluded that the evidence at trial established a sufficient likelihood that reinstating a citizenship question would result in noncitizen households responding to the census at lower rates than other groups, which would cause them to be undercounted and lead to many of the injuries respondents asserted— diminishment of political representation, loss of federal funds, degradation of census data, and diversion of resources. For purposes of standing, these findings of fact were not so suspect as to be clearly erroneous. Several state respondents have shown that if noncitizen households are undercounted by as little as 2%, they will lose out on federal funds that are distributed on the basis of state population. That is a sufficiently concrete and imminent injury to satisfy Article III, and there is no dispute that a ruling in favor of respondents would redress that harm. Pp. 2564 - 2566.

2. The Enumeration Clause permits Congress, and by extension the Secretary, to inquire about citizenship on the census questionnaire. That conclusion follows from Congress’s broad authority over the census, as informed by long and consistent historical practice that "has been open, widespread, and unchallenged since the early days of the Republic." NLRB v. Noel Canning, 573 U.S. 513, 572, 134 S.Ct. 2550, 189 L.Ed.2d 538 (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment). Pp. 2566 - 2567.

3. The Secretary’s decision is reviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act. The APA instructs reviewing courts to set aside agency action that is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law," 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A), but it makes review unavailable "to the extent that" the agency action is "committed to agency discretion by law," § 701(a)(2). The Census Act confers broad authority on the Secretary, but it does not leave his discretion unbounded. The § 701(a)(2) exception is generally limited to "certain categories of administrative decisions that courts traditionally have regarded as ‘committed to agency discretion,’ " Lincoln v. Vigil, 508 U.S. 182, 191, 113 S.Ct. 2024, 124 L.Ed.2d 101. The taking of the census is not one of those areas. Nor is the statute drawn so that it furnishes no meaningful standard by which to judge the Secretary’s action, which is amenable to review for compliance with several Census Act provisions according to the general requirements of reasoned agency decisionmaking. Because this is not a case in which there is "no law to apply," Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 410, 91 S.Ct. 814, 28 L.Ed.2d 136, the Secretary’s decision is subject to judicial review. Pp. 2567 - 2569.

4. The Secretary’s decision was supported by the evidence before him. He examined the Bureau’s analysis of various ways to collect improved citizenship data and explained why he thought the best course was to both reinstate a citizenship question and use citizenship data from administrative records to fill in the gaps. He then weighed the value of obtaining more complete and accurate citizenship data against the uncertain risk that reinstating a citizenship question would result in a materially lower response rate, and explained why he thought the benefits of his approach outweighed the risk. That decision was reasonable and reasonably explained, particularly in light of the long history of the citizenship question on the census. Pp. 2569 - 2571.

5. The District Court also erred in ruling that the Secretary violated two particular provisions of the Census Act, § 6(c) and § 141(f). Section 6’s first two subsections authorize the Secretary to acquire administrative records from other federal agencies and state and local governments, while subsection (c) requires the Secretary, to the maximum extent possible, to use that information "instead of conducting direct inquiries." Assuming that § 6(c) applies, the Secretary complied with it for essentially the same reasons that his decision was not arbitrary and capricious: Administrative records would not, in his judgment, provide the more complete and accurate data that DOJ sought. The Secretary also complied with § 141(f), which requires him to make a series of reports to Congress about his plans for the census. And even if he had violated that provision, the error would be harmless because he fully informed Congress of, and explained, his decision. Pp. 2571 - 2573.

6. In order to permit meaningful judicial review, an agency must " ‘disclose the basis’ " of its action. Burlington Truck Lines, Inc. v. United States, 371 U.S. 156, 167-169, 83 S.Ct. 239, 9 L.Ed.2d 207. A court is ordinarily limited to evaluating the agencys contemporaneous explanation in light of the existing administrative record, Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. Natural Resources...

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