Thursday, June 27, 2019
In its highly anticipated opinion in Department of Commerce v. New York on the issue of whether the decision by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to include a citizenship question on the main census questionnaire for 2020 is lawful, the Court held that given the "unusual circumstances" of the case, the matter should be remanded to the agency to provide a "reasoned explanation" for its decision pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), thus affirming the district court on this point.
Chief Justice Roberts's opinion for the Court is relatively brief — 29 pages — but the brevity is undercut by the shifting alliances within the opinion's sections and the additional 58 pages of opinions concurring in part and dissenting in part.
Recall the basic issue from oral argument: whether the challengers had standing, the actual enumeration requirements in the Constitution, Art. I, § 2, cl. 3, and Amend. XIV, § 2, and the nonconstitutional issues centering on the Administrative Procedure Act. The equal protection argument receded into the background on appeal, but has re-emerged in other proceedings.
After explaining the facts and procedural history, including the rather unusual question of whether the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, should be deposed, the Court unanimously held the challengers had standing, rejecting the government's contrary contention: "we are satisfied that, in these circumstances, respondents have met their burden of showing that third parties will likely react in predictable ways to the citizenship question, even if they do so unlawfully and despite the requirement that the Government keep individual answers confidential."
A majority of the Court, Roberts joined by Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh — held that the Enumeration Clause did not provide a basis to set aside the determination of Wilbur Ross. The majority held that the Constitution vests Congress with virtually unlimited discretion to conduct the census, and that Congress has delegated this broad authority to the Secretary of Commerce. The majority stated that "history matters" so that "early understanding and long practice" of inquiring about citizenship on the census should control.
A notably different but numerically larger — 7 Justices — rejected the government's contention that the discretion given by Congress to the Secretary of Commerce is so broad as to be unreviewable. There is "law to apply" and the statute provides criteria for meaningful review. Only Justices Alito and Gorsuch disagreed with this conclusion.
And yet another majority, the same majority as the holding for no claim under the Enumeration Clause — Roberts was joined by Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh — rejected the claim "at the heart of this suit" that Secretary Ross "abused his discretion in deciding to reinstate the citizenship question." Essentially, this majority held that because the statute gives the Secretary to make policy choices and "the evidence before the Secretary hardly led ineluctably to just one reasonable course of action."
That same majority rejected the claim of violations of the APA by Secretary Ross in the collection of information and data, and even if he did so, it was harmless.
Finally, the Chief Justice's opinion for the Court — this time with a majority of Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, considered the district judge's conclusion that the decision of the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, rested on a pretextual basis. The Court's opinion reviewed the evidence presented to the district court:
That evidence showed that the Secretary was determined to reinstate a citizenship question from the time he entered office; instructed his staff to make it happen; waited while Commerce officials explored whether another agency would request census-based citizenship data; subsequently contacted the Attorney General himself to ask if DOJ would make the request; and adopted the Voting Rights Act rationale late in the process. In the District Court’s view, this evidence established that the Secretary had made up his mind to reinstate a citizenship question “well before” receiving DOJ’s request, and did so for reasons unknown but unrelated to the VRA.
After considering other evidence, the Court concluded:
Altogether, the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the Secretary gave for his decision. In the Secretary’s telling, Commerce was simply acting on a routine data request from another agency. Yet the materials before us indicate that Commerce went to great lengths to elicit the request from DOJ (or any other willing agency). And unlike a typical case in which an agency may have both stated and unstated reasons for a decision, here the VRA enforcement rationale—the sole stated reason—seems to have been contrived.
We are presented, in other words, with an explanation for agency action that is incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency’s priorities and decisionmaking process. It is rare to review a record as extensive as the one before us when evaluating informal agency action— and it should be. But having done so for the sufficient reasons we have explained, we cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given. Our review is deferential, but we are “not required to exhibit a naiveté from which ordinary citizens are free.” United States v. Stanchich, 550 F. 2d 1294, 1300 (CA2 1977) (Friendly, J.). The reasoned explanation requirement of administrative law, after all, is meant to ensure that agencies offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public. Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case.
In these unusual circumstances, the District Court was warranted in remanding to the agency . . . .
Thus the Court remanded the decision to the agency for further explanation. To be sure, this conclusion and section seems inconsistent with the "abuse of discretion" section finding no "abuse of discretion." And notably, Chief Justice Roberts is the only Justice supporting both of those conclusions.
Also notably, the Court's opinion does not comment on any of the recently revealed evidence or new proceedings - updates shortly.