Editorial: Counting us out? A bad Supreme Court census ruling

After Tuesday’s daylong Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court came a one-paragraph, unsigned opinion from her potential future colleagues: They granted the Trump administration’s effort to stop the counting for the decennial census, proving once again that the top bench — and who sits on it — matters immensely.

Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor objected, noting correctly that after months of political conniving by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, the normal July 31 end date of the national tally had been extended to Oct. 31 due to COVID, then mysteriously pulled back to Sept. 30.

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A California federal judge saw through the nonsense and ordered the enumerators to keep enumerating until Halloween, a decision unanimously upheld by a three-member appeal panel. Ross persisted and asked the Supremes to freeze the trial judge’s reasonable schedule while the full appeal is heard in San Francisco and then before the Supreme Court itself.

What’s the point of that? When the order is frozen, as it is now, the counting stops. By the time all the appeals are concluded, there’ll be no time left on the clock, which greatly increases the chances of a flawed count that will shortchange hard-to-count populations, especially immigrants and low-income Americans.

The Census was still accepting electronic submissions of questionnaires after 5 p.m. ET Tuesday. But that could be the end of this, with advance notice to no one. What a pathetic denouement.

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As Sotomayor put it, “The harms caused by rushing this year’s census count are irreparable. And respondents will suffer their lasting impact for at least the next 10 years.”

The Commerce Department has the constitutional obligation to conduct a complete and accurate census. The Supreme Court just gave Commerce license to conduct a political one instead.