The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked for now a plan by the administration of President Donald Trump to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
The court said by a 5-4 vote that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' rationale that the question was needed for voting rights enforcement "seems to have been contrived."
The court sent the case back to the Commerce Department for further explanation.
In six lawsuits filed in federal courts in California, New York and Maryland, coalitions of states, cities and civil rights groups argued that a citizenship question would result in an undercount of immigrants and Hispanics. The high court ruled in two New York cases.
While the decision halts the use of the citizenship question for the time being, it was not clear whether the Commerce Department might be able reinstate it in time for the 2020 census. The agency did not immediately return requests for comment.
U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Kelly Laco said, "We are disappointed by the Supreme Court's decision today. The Department of Justice will continue to defend this administration's lawful exercise of executive power."
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco, said at a news conference, "It's conceivable the agency will try to do this again."
State Assemblyman Marc Berman, whose district includes Mountain View and Palo Alto, called the decision "a short-term victory for all Californians" in a statement, adding that there was no question that the Trump administration "is intentionally and systematically trying to intimidate Californians."
"Whether you were born here 90 years ago, or moved here yesterday, you are a Californian. Californians don't get bullied, and we don't get intimidated," said Berman, who is the chair of the Assembly Select Committee on the Census and is leading the Assembly's Census efforts.
"No matter what happens with this question, the work continues to make sure every person in California gets counted in the census," he said.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, whose city filed a separate lawsuit in the dispute, said, "Today, while we applaud the Supreme Court's recognition that this administration has offered only 'contrived' explanations for its discriminatory census policy, it appears too soon to celebrate.
"We await further proceedings to know whether this nation's courts will ultimately affirm the fundamental principle that we have long embraced in San Jose: everyone counts," Liccardo said.
In all six lawsuits, federal district judges, including U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg of San Francisco, had issued preliminary injunctions blocking the use of the question.
The Supreme Court rejected one of the arguments raised in the lawsuits: a claim that the citizenship question, by deterring responses from non-citizen immigrants, would violate the U.S. Constitution's requirement for an "actual enumeration" of the population every 10 years.
The court said Congress, and by extension the Commerce Department, has historically had "broad authority" to use the census to gather demographic information.
Instead, the court ruled on the basis of the federal Administrative Procedure Act, which requires a reasoned explanation for agency action.
The court majority said, "The evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the secretary gave for his decision."
It said Ross began taking steps to include a citizenship question soon after taking office in early 2017 and that the agency unsuccessfully asked the Homeland Security Department to request the question before asking the Department of Justice to do so later in the process.
The Justice Department's letter requesting the question in December 2017 for purposes of Voting Rights Act enforcement "drew heavily on contributions from Commerce staff and advisors," the court said.
"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....What was provided here was more of a distraction," the court majority said.
The majority was made up of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The once-a-decade census information is used to determine federal funding and congressional representation.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said at the Sacramento news conference with Becerra that California officials estimated a citizenship question could result in an undercount of up to 1.6 million state residents, leading to a decrease in federal funding for public services.
He and Becerra said the state received $150 billion in federal funding in 2016 for purposes that included schools, transportation and emergency services, among others.
Newsom and Becerra urged Californians to participate in the census.
"It's imperative for everyone to be counted," Becerra said.
Newsom said, "Every person counts. If Californians do not participate in next year's census, the Trump Administration wins."
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement, "This decision is a triumph for all Americans and the rule of law. The administration's question was designed to skew the census and undercount the population in a way that benefited Trump's agenda, no matter the cost."
San Francisco and Monterey County were plaintiffs in one of the two New York cases, which was led by New York state and joined by 17 other states, the District of Columbia and 14 cities and counties.