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Supreme Court Allows Trump Administration To End Census Early

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 24: New York State Senator Robert Jackson (hand detail) visits the Food Bank for New York City hosted pop-up food pantry during Hunger Action Month at Lincoln Center on September 24, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Bank for New York City)
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By Hansi Lo Wang/NPR and LAist Staff

The Trump administration can end counting for the 2020 census after the Supreme Court approved a request for now, to suspend a lower court order that extended the count's schedule.

The high court's ruling, following an emergency request the Justice Department made last week, is the latest turn in a roller coaster of a legal fight over the timeline for the count.

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Last-minute changes by the Census Bureau and its skirting of an earlier court order for the count have left local communities and the bureau's workers across the U.S. unsure of how much longer they can take part in a national head count already upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lower courts previously ordered the administration to keep counting through Oct. 31, reverting to an extended schedule that Trump officials had first proposed in April in response to delays caused by the pandemic and then abruptly decided to abandon in July.

More time, judges have ruled, would give the bureau a better chance of getting an accurate and complete count of the country's residents, which is used to determine how political representation and federal funding are distributed among the states over the next decade.

A pamphlet with 2020 census information written in Spanish is included in a box of food to be distributed by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank to people facing economic or food insecurity amid the COVID-19 pandemic on August 6, 2020 in Paramount, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In Los Angeles County, considered one of the hardest-to-count regions in the nation, local officials have argued that getting an accurate count is critical to maintaining both political representation and critical public services.

The City of Los Angeles and L.A. County are plaintiffs in the lawsuit that made it to the high court, filed in August after the Trump administration's sudden move to cut the census short.

"The decision is going to result in a less accurate census," L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer told LAist Tuesday after the ruling. "It's going to be a census that's unduly predicated on guesswork."

Justice Department attorneys say the Census Bureau is under pressure to meet a legal deadline of Dec. 31 for reporting to the president the first set of census results -- the latest state population counts that determine each state's share of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. The numbers, in turn, also determine how many Electoral College votes each state has to determine who becomes the U.S. president in 2024 and 2028.

Since May, however, career officials at the bureau have warned that the agency can no longer meet the Dec. 31 reporting deadline because of the pandemic. Judges in lower courts have also noted that the national counts from the years 1810 through 1840 were delivered late and Congress later stepped in to approve deadline extensions.

Still, if the commerce secretary, who oversees the bureau, were to present the new state counts to the White House by Dec. 31, that would ensure that even if President Trump did not win reelection, he could attempt to carry out the unprecedented change he wants to make to who is counted when determining the reallocation of House seats.

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Despite the Constitution's requirement to include the "whole number of persons in each state" and the president's limited authority over the census, Trump wants to try to exclude unauthorized immigrants from those numbers. That effort has sparked another legal fight that is also before the Supreme Court.