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Law School Case Brief

DOC v. New York - 139 S. Ct. 2551 (2019)


In order to apportion Members of the House of 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. U.S. Const. art. I, § 2, cl. 3; U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 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.S. § 141(a). The Secretary is aided in that task by the Census Bureau, a statistical agency housed within the Department of Commerce. 13 U.S.C.S. §§ 2, 21.


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. Thereafter, plaintiffs filed a suit alleging that the Secretary’s decision violated the Enumeration Clause and the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act. 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 district 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 the United States Supreme 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.


Were the actions of the Secretary of Commerce arbitrary, capricious, and violative of the Census Act?




The Court held that the Secretary’s decision was supported by the evidence before him. The Court noted that the Secretary 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. The Secretary’s decision, therefore, was reasonable and reasonably explained, particularly in light of the long history of the citizenship question on the census. In light of this, the Court held that the District Court erred in ruling that the Secretary violated the Census Act. However, the Court also held that the Secretary of Commerce provided a pretextual reason for placing a question about citizenship on the short-form census questionnaire and, therefore, remanded that issue to the agency for further proceedings. 

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