The justices granted the Justice Department’s request for an emergency stay by blocking a lower court ruling that had required field data collection operations for the census count to be continued until Oct. 31. The decision required at least five justices to be in favor.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an Obama appointee, said in a seven-page dissent (pdf) that the Supreme Court’s action would leave the Census Bureau room to “sacrifice accuracy for expediency.” Sotomayor was the only justice who publicly dissented.
The census, which takes place once every decade, is used to determine how to distribute $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually. It is also used to decide how many congressional seats each state gets, and how the House of Representatives and state legislatures draw voting districts during the next round of redistricting—a process known as apportionment.
Field operations faced challenges amid the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) pandemic, and the Census Bureau in April proposed extending the deadline for finishing the count from July 31 to Oct. 31, and extend the deadline for delivering apportionment counts to the president from Dec. 31 to April 30, 2021.
The proposal to extend the apportionment deadline passed the House, but the Senate ultimately didn’t take up the request.
Around the same time, President Donald Trump issued an executive order in July to exclude illegal immigrants from census numbers used in the apportionment count. A panel of three district judges in New York ruled the order unlawful. The Trump administration is now appealing the case to the Supreme Court.
In early August, the Census Bureau announced a new plan that would seek to meet the original apportionment statutory deadline of Dec. 31 for submitting the collected data to Congress. It said that it would end field data collection by Sept. 30.
But Judge Lucy Koh, ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, blocked the Sept. 30 deadline. She issued a preliminary injunction on Sept. 24 to suspend the Sept. 30 deadline for field operations, as well as suspend the apportionment Dec. 31 deadline.
The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, announced on Sept. 28 that it would end the count on Oct. 5. Koh also struck that down and accused officials of “lurching from one hasty, unexplained plan to the next … and undermining the credibility of the Census Bureau and the 2020 Census.”
An appellate court panel upheld Koh’s order allowing the census to continue until Oct. 31, but struck down the part that suspended the Dec. 31 deadline. The panel said that just because the year-end deadline is impossible to meet doesn’t mean the court should require the Census Bureau to miss it.
The Justice Department, arguing for the Census Bureau, had said that complaints about the time line should be raised with Congress, which can extend the statutory deadline.
“Contrary to what Plaintiffs may think, the Bureau is not free to disregard a statutory deadline in pursuit of some ethereal notion of a better census,” Justice Department lawyers said in a court filing.
The Census Bureau on Tuesday announced that as of Oct. 12, 99.9 percent of housing units have been accounted for in the 2020 census.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.