The Supreme Court ended its 2018-2019 term with two major decisions on the last day that could potentially affect the political landscape for the next decade.
In the case Department of Commerce v. New York, about adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the Court affirmed in part and reversed in part a decision by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. In a 5-4 decision with the opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, it was determined that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross did not violate the Enumeration Clause or the Census Act when he reinstated a citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire. But the decision found the District Court was warranted in remanding the case back to the agency where the evidence does not match Ross’ explanation for his decision. Roberts referred to the explanation as “contrived.”
Roberts was joined by Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor in the decision, though the justices had varying opinions dissenting and concurring with parts of the opinion. The decision means adding the citizenship question is barred for now, although it is possible that the administration could provide adequate justifications to add it in the future scant time remains before 2020 census forms must be printed.
Census experts have estimated that including the citizenship question would result in an undercount of about 6.5 million people, mostly people of color, which could reduce representation in congressional districts as well as allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending.
In two gerrymandering cases, (Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek), Roberts wrote a 5-4 opinion that ruled that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.” The ruling, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, would appear to prevent future claims against partisan gerrymandering.
Kagan offered a sharp dissent, writing that it was “the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.”
In other cases of note, the Court, in a 7-2 opinion written by Alito, ruled that the presence of a World War I memorial on government property in Bladensburg, Md., known as the Peace Cross, does not violate the Constitution’s establishment clause. Ginsburg wrote a strong dissent in the case titled The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, contending the monument built in 1925 to honor soldiers constituted a religious symbol.
A 7-2 opinion written by Kavanaugh in Flowers v. Mississippi determined that the state committed clear error by using its peremptory strike of a black prospective juror in a racially discriminatory way in Curtis Flowers’ sixth murder trial.
In Kisor v. Wilkie, the Court ruled 9-0 to uphold the Auer deference, which requires courts to defer to a government agency’s interpretation of its own regulations.