This editorial was first published in the Times Herald-Record (Middletown, New York), a fellow GateHouse Media publication. Guest editorials don't necessarily reflect the Daily Messenger's opinions.


In one of the most significant cases it will consider this term, the Supreme Court earlier this week heard arguments on an issue for which the justices’ ruling will decide two important questions:

• How many people actually live in America?

• How serious is Chief Justice John Roberts about keeping the court independent of partisan politics?

While it’s always risky to try to read the court’s tea leaves, experienced court watchers say the questions asked by the court’s conservative justices suggest low expectations for accuracy in people-counting with a corresponding high likelihood of a political decision.

Neither would be good for America.

The issue debated is a question inserted at the virtual last minute by the Trump administration in the decennial census to be conducted next year: Are you a citizen of the United States of America? The question has not been asked for 70 years because the Census Bureau has determined it frightens many immigrants — both legal and undocumented — who then refuse to be counted. Thus, the "actual enumeration" of all people, not just citizens, living in each state, as called for in the Constitution, is thwarted.

Census Bureau staff was surprised when Labor Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, inserted the question without consulting them and without the required advance notice of the change.

Bureau statisticians estimate that as many as 6.5 million people will go uncounted if the question is included. Given this administration’s hostile attitude towards all immigrants, that’s not hard to accept.

What is hard to accept is Ross’ explanation for inserting the question — so that the government can better protect the rights of minority voters by enforcing the Voting Rights Act. This administration’s well-demonstrated negative attitude toward minority voting rights makes that argument absurd.

Three federal judges rejected it on the grounds that Ross went looking for a justification after he came up with the idea.

Actually, it was former Trump aide Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach, former Kansas secretary of state best known for making it harder for minorities and immigrants to vote, who came up with the idea. The motivation is purely political.

The census determines how many representatives each state has in Congress, how congressional districts are drawn up in each state and how much money each state receives from the federal government. Since states with higher populations of immigrants (California, for example) are more likely to vote Democratic, an inaccurate count because of fear engendered by the question would penalize them.

If there’s anything this administration knows about, it’s how to go about penalizing those who don’t agree with it. It has worked hard, with the help of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to get more conservative judges on the federal bench and the Supreme Court, just for cases such as this. With a conservative majority now in place, Trump and McConnell undoubtedly feel good about their chances for a ruling in their favor.

That’s where Roberts comes in. The chief justice has strongly defended the judiciary against verbal assaults by Trump and has insisted on the necessity of keeping the Supreme Court non-political. How serious is he?