Supreme Court Blocks Wilbur Ross Deposition on Census Question

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the deposition of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in politically charged lawsuits that challenge the addition of a question about citizenship to the 2020 census.

The high court granted a request from President Donald Trump’s administration, which said the challengers lack grounds to probe what was in Ross’s mind when he decided to include the question. The order came without any published dissent on that part of the case.

The lawsuits are set to go to trial Nov. 5. The challengers had been hoping to use Ross’s deposition at the trial, and force him to testify.

The challengers, including New York State and the American Civil Liberties Union, say Ross has given shifting and inaccurate explanations.

Ross testified to Congress in March that he hadn’t discussed the citizenship question with anyone at the White House. But the Justice Department said in a recent court filing that he now recalls speaking last year with Steve Bannon, a staunch advocate of limiting immigration who was Trump’s chief White House strategist at the time.

The Justice Department said Bannon asked Ross if he would speak to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach about including a citizenship question. Kobach, now the Republican candidate for governor in Kansas, is an outspoken critic of illegal immigration and served on Trump’s short-lived voter fraud commission.

Advocacy groups and more than a dozen states, cities and counties have sued, saying the citizenship question discriminates against immigrants and will reduce the accuracy of the count by lessening participation. An undercount in areas with large numbers of non-citizens could shift congressional districts and federal dollars away from those communities.

A federal judge last month ordered Ross to sit for a deposition, saying he has first-hand knowledge related to the claims and was "personally and directly involved in the decision, and the unusual process leading to it, to an unusual degree."

Ross originally explained the decision as stemming from a Justice Department request for citizenship information to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The Trump administration says census-takers have asked about citizenship as far back as 1820. The last time every household was asked about citizenship on the decennial census was in 1950. From 1960 to 2000, a sample of the population was asked about citizenship. Since 2005, the Census Bureau has asked about citizenship in a separate annual survey sent to some people. The 2010 census did not include a citizenship question.

The high court order extends until the court resolves an appeal the administration has said it will file. The justices gave the administration until Oct. 29 to file that appeal.

In a separate part of the order, the court let the challengers press ahead with other parts of the case, including the deposition of acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas dissented from that part of the order.

"There’s no reason to distinguish between Secretary Ross’s deposition and those of other senior executive officials," Gorsuch wrote.

The case is In Re Department of Commerce, 18A375.

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