The front columns at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Oct. 5, 2015.
Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump’s census scheme suffers a major setback at the Supreme Court

Updated

We know what the Trump administration did when it added a citizenship question to the 2020 census. We also know why the administration did it and the degree to which officials lied about the rationale behind the scheme.

What we didn’t know is whether Donald Trump and his team would get away with it. In a bit of a surprise, the U.S. Supreme Court handed the White House a major setback this morning.

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Trump administration cannot include a question about citizenship on the 2020 census form that goes to every U.S. household, giving a win to mostly Democratic populous states that said the question would discourage legal and illegal immigrants from responding and make the population count less accurate.

The court was deeply fractured on the issue, but on the section that essentially eliminated the citizenship question, the vote was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the four-member liberal wing of the court.

The full ruling in Department of Commerce v. New York is online here (pdf).

If you read it, you’ll notice that this one gets a little messy. Roberts didn’t say the citizenship question is improper; rather, he took aim at the Trump administration’s motivations and reasoning.

At one point in the decision, for example, the chief justice highlighted the “significant mismatch” between what Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross did “and the rationale he provided.” Roberts added that the administration’s stated justification was “contrived.”

It was a polite way for the Supreme Court’s five-member majority to say the Trump administration offered a brazenly dishonest defense.

As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern put it, “Roberts couldn’t ignore the mountain of evidence that Ross lied about the reason for a census citizenship question.”

That’s right, though it suggests four other Supreme Court justices were perfectly comfortable ignoring the mountain of evidence that Ross lied about the reason for a census citizenship question.

Nevertheless, the next obvious question is straightforward: what happens now?

At this point, there are some meaningful practical and logistical challenges. The Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce have to begin printing materials literally in the coming weeks.

It’s possible that the administration will scramble to come up with a new legal justification for the scheme, and it’s possible officials will convince the courts that the new justification is legitimate, despite everything we already know to be true.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes compared it to the logic the Supreme Court relied on to advance Trump’s Muslim ban. In effect, Roberts told Team Trump, “Come back and lie to us about your motives more convincingly, please.”

That won’t be easy – and the clock is ticking.