AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Breaking news this evening on the controversial citizenship question on the 2020 census - the Supreme Court is siding with the Trump administration to temporarily block the questioning of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. More than two dozen states and cities are suing over Ross' decision to add the question which asks whether census takers are U.S. citizens.
NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering this legal battle. He joins us now. Hansi, first just bring us up to speed about why a judge ordered Secretary Ross to testify in the first place and why the Supreme Court stepped in to block that order at least temporarily tonight.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Well, this is ultimately about trying to get at why Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross approved adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. And the Trump administration says the court should really rely on a record of internal emails, memos, other documents the administration has already released as part of these lawsuits.
But the plaintiffs here, these lawyers for these dozens of states, cities and other groups that have been suing the administration, say that really the court should consider beyond that record, that they should be allowed to question Wilbur Ross under oath before a trial to try to get additional evidence to prove their claim that Ross misused his authority over the census by adding this question and that this question was really politically motivated, that this was not about - as the administration says, about using the responses to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, that there could be other motives here and also that there have been inconsistencies between what these documents say and what - Ross' testimony to Congress about his rationale for this question.
So ultimately a district judge - federal judge in New York allowed the questioning of Ross under oath because the judge said Ross' credibility and intent are at issue. But the Supreme Court tonight has temporarily blocked Ross' deposition. And Justice Neil Gorsuch actually wrote, in his opinion, that probing Ross' mental processes in a trial is highly unusual. And the Supreme Court is now leaving room for the administration to make additional requests that could permanently block Secretary Ross' deposition and could also open up this case, you know, really bring it to - fully to the Supreme Court and have arguments before the Supreme Court. This is all depending on what the administration does next.
CORNISH: That's the administration, but where does this leave the dozens of states and cities that were suing over this question?
WANG: Well, the Supreme Court did allow the plaintiffs' attorneys to question one Trump administration official that they really wanted to question. This is John Gore, the acting head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division that the administration says needs this citizenship question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act's protections against racial discrimination.
And the Supreme Court is also allowing additional document requests for now, but basically the window is closing for the plaintiffs to gather additional evidence before the first potential trial of these lawsuits is set to start. That would be on November 5, the day before the midterm elections. And it will start here in New York. But if the administration asks the Supreme Court to take on this case, that really throws the timeline up in the air.
CORNISH: We've got about a minute left here, Hansi. Tell us the stakes. Why is getting an accurate census so important?
WANG: The census is really set - is really - what - the numbers that the government collects in 2020 - those numbers are going to reset the political map. They - these numbers are used to determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets. It's used to determine how approximately $800 billion a year in federal tax dollars - how that money is distributed around the country. So getting an accurate count is very, very important. And the plaintiffs here are arguing that if the citizenship question stays on, it risks noncitizens not participating, and it risks harming the accuracy of the information collected for the census.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thank you for your reporting.
WANG: You're welcome.
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