Supreme Court Blocks Wilbur Ross Deposition on Census Citizenship Question

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court temporarily blocked a court order on Monday that would have required Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, to give a deposition in a lawsuit challenging the addition of a question concerning citizenship to the 2020 census.

As is the Supreme Court’s practice in ruling on stay applications, its brief order gave no reasons. The court said its order staying the deposition would stand until it resolved a petition from the Trump administration. A trial in the case is scheduled to start next month.

In urging the justices to bar the deposition, the Trump administration said that Mr. Ross’s subjective motivations for adding the question were legally irrelevant. The administration said that its stated reasons were sufficient to allow courts to examine the lawfulness of the change.

“Those reasons include the Justice Department’s view that citizenship data from the decennial census would be helpful to its enforcement duties under the Voting Rights Act,” Noel J. Francisco, the solicitor general, wrote in an emergency application.

The lawsuit challenging the addition of the question was filed by New York, other states, localities and advocacy groups. They said that asking the question was a calculated effort by the administration to discriminate against immigrants.

Asking about citizenship would “fatally undermine” the accuracy of the census, they said, because both legal and unauthorized immigrants might refuse to fill out the form. That could reduce Democratic representation when new state and congressional districts are drawn in 2021, and affect the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending.

The advocacy groups said Mr. Ross’s testimony was needed in light of his “shifting and inaccurate explanations” for the change. He initially said that he had acted in response to a December 2017 request from the Justice Department and that he had not consulted with the White House.

Later, Mr. Ross acknowledged that he had been exploring the idea long before receiving a letter from the Justice Department and that he had discussed the issue with Stephen K. Bannon, then President Trump’s chief strategist, in spring 2017.

Those discrepancies “have placed the credibility of Secretary Ross squarely at issue,” Judge Jesse M. Furman of the Federal District Court in Manhattan wrote in ordering the deposition to go forward.

Mr. Francisco told the Supreme Court that Judge Furman had drawn “uncharitable inferences” from Mr. Ross’s statements, though he acknowledged that at least one of them was “admittedly imprecise.”

On Oct. 9, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that Mr. Ross could be deposed. The court acknowledged that depositions of high-ranking officials are rare and disfavored. But it said there are exceptions, particularly when the officials have knowledge not available elsewhere.

Judge Furman had found, the appeals court said, “that Secretary Ross likely possesses unique firsthand knowledge central to the plaintiffs’ claims.” Indeed, the court said, three of his aides had testified that only Mr. Ross could answer certain questions.

On Monday, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the Supreme Court should have gone further, shutting down all pretrial fact-gathering in the census case. Justice Gorsuch added that there was no indication of bad faith in Mr. Ross’s conduct.

“There’s nothing unusual about a new cabinet secretary coming to office inclined to favor a different policy direction, soliciting support from other agencies to bolster his views, disagreeing with staff or cutting through red tape,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. “Of course, some people may disagree with the policy and process. But until now, at least, this much has never been thought enough to justify a claim of bad faith and launch an inquisition into a cabinet secretary’s motives.”

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