WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Friday it will continue to look for legal grounds to force the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, hours after President Donald Trump said he is “very seriously” considering an executive order to get the question included.
Trump said his administration is exploring a number of legal options, but the Justice Department did not say exactly what options it has now that the Supreme Court has for now barred the question.
The government has already begun the process of printing the census questionnaire without that question.
The administration’s focus on asking broadly about citizenship for the first time since 1950 reflects the enormous political stakes and potential costs in the once-a-decade population count that determines the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives for the next 10 years and the distribution of some $675 billion in federal spending.
Trump, speaking as he departed the White House for a weekend in New Jersey, said he might take executive action.
“It’s one of the ways that we’re thinking about doing it, very seriously,” he said.
An executive order would not, by itself, override court rulings blocking the inclusion of the citizenship question. But such an action from Trump would perhaps give administration lawyers a new basis to try to persuade federal courts that the question could be included.
Later Friday, Justice Department lawyers formally told a federal judge in Maryland the administration is not giving up the legal fight to add the citizenship question to the next census. But they also said it’s unclear how they will proceed, according to a court filing.
The Census Bureau’s own experts have said the question would discourage immigrants from participating and result in a less accurate census that would redistribute money and political power from cities where immigrants tend to cluster to whiter, rural areas.
Trump’s administration has faced numerous roadblocks to adding the question, including last week’s Supreme Court ruling that blocked its inclusion, at least temporarily. Both the Justice and Commerce departments indicated on Tuesday that they were moving forward with the census, minus the citizenship question.
But Trump has insisted otherwise, pushing his administration to come up with a way to include the controversial query. He suggested Friday officials might be able to add an addendum to the questionnaire with the question after it’s already printed.
In the Supreme Court’s decision last week, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s four more liberal members in saying the administration’s current justification for the question “seems to have been contrived.”
The administration had pushed the Supreme Court to decide the case quickly, citing a July 1 deadline to begin printing the forms. The court took the rare step of taking up the case directly from a trial court in New York before an appeals court had weighed in. As recently as June 20, Solicitor General Noel Francisco reminded the justices of the need for a quick decision, writing that “for all practical purposes, the Census Bureau needs to finalize the 2020 questionnaire by June of this year.”
The Trump administration had said the question was being added to aid in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters’ access to the ballot box.
But the question’s opponents say recently discovered evidence from the computer files of a Republican redistricting consultant who died last year shows that, far from helping minority voters, discrimination against Hispanics was behind the push for the citizenship question.