With the 2020 Census response lagging amid the pandemic, Alliance San Diego organized a census parade in May to remind residents. Courtesy of Alliance San Diego

By Jan Wolfe | Reuters

The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed the Trump administration to wind down population counting for the 2020 U.S. Census earlier than originally planned in a blow to civil rights groups concerned about an undercount of racial minorities.

The justices put on hold a lower court ruling that had ordered that the decennial population count be continued until Oct. 31. The Census Bureau on Aug. 3 announced that it would wind down data collection by Sept. 30, a month earlier than originally scheduled.

The Supreme Court’s order was a loss for municipalities including Los Angeles, the counties that include Houston and Seattle, and civil rights groups including the National Urban League that sued seeking to get the later deadline reinstated.

The plaintiffs argued that the “rushed” schedule would lead to inaccurate census results and “a massive undercount of the country’s communities of color.” They said in an Oct. 10 filing that a ruling for the Trump administration would allow it “to stop the 2020 Census count, shut down field operations, fire hundreds of thousands of employees, and start processing data the very next day.”

Trump’s administration has said it changed the timeline in order to meet a Dec. 31 deadline set by statute for delivering census results to the president.

The census count’s accuracy is critical, as it determines how the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures draw voting districts during the next round of redistricting and guides the federal government in allocating $1.5 trillion a year in aid.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose has repeatedly ruled against the Census Bureau, saying the accelerated schedule would likely produce inaccurate numbers.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the only justice who publicly dissented, said the Supreme Court’s action would allow the Census Bureau to “sacrifice accuracy for expediency.”

The Justice Department, arguing for the Census Bureau, said complaints about the timeline should be raised with Congress, which can extend the statutory deadline.

“Contrary to what Plaintiffs may think, the Bureau is not free to disregard a statutory deadline in pursuit of some ethereal notion of a better census,” Justice Department lawyers said in a court filing.

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