Washington (CNN)As the Trump administration defended its move to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census at the Supreme Court Tuesday, the nation's first Latina justice leveled an impassioned, persistent counterattack from the bench.
Sotomayor takes liberal lead in challenging admin on census
Justice Sonia Sotomayor interrupted US Solicitor General Noel Francisco before he could complete his second sentence and did not let up on the government's top lawyer through the end of his allotted time at the lectern.
Like her colleagues on the left, Sotomayor sharply challenged the Trump administration's proposal adding the citizenship query to the decennial effort intended to count everyone irrespective of legal status. But Sotomayor's questions were far more numerous and heated.
She also emphasized the fears among Hispanics about responding to a citizenship query.
"There is no doubt that people will respond less," she insisted. "That has been proven in study after study. One census surveyor described an incident where he walked into a home, started asking citizenship, and the person stopped and left his home, leaving the census surveyor sitting there."
Sotomayor's approach recalled other instances over the past decade that the Obama nominee, born of Puerto Rican parents in the Bronx, has given voice to her distinct background on the majority-white bench.
It also offered a reminder of how deeply America's highest court is divided on dilemmas involving race and ethnicity. Tuesday's arguments overall suggested the five-justice conservative majority would uphold the Trump administration decision to add the citizenship question, over the dissent of the four liberals, including Sotomayor.
Census Bureau officials have predicted a citizenship question would lead to an undercount of Hispanic and noncitizen households, which New York and other state challengers say would translate into less federal funding and political power for mainly Democratic locales. The decennial population count is used to apportion members of the US House of Representatives, draw state political districts and allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in government funding.
When Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ordered the citizenship question added last year, he said the Justice Department believed that resulting data would lead to better enforcement of voting rights.
Lower court judges rejected those grounds as a pretext and declared the secretary's action -- taken without the usual Census Bureau testing and safeguards for new questions -- violated federal procedural rules and the Constitution's enumeration clause.
As Francisco appealed to the justices to overturn the lower court finding, he insisted, "There's no evidence in this record that the secretary would have asked this question had the Department of Justice not requested it. And there's no evidence in this record that the Secretary didn't believe that the Department of Justice actually wanted this information to improve Voting Rights Act enforcement."
Chief Justice John Roberts suggested he found that assertion reasonable, telling New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood, who led off the challengers' arguments, "The CVAP, Citizen Voting Age Population, is the critical element in voting rights enforcement, and this is citizen information."