The Atlantic

A Supreme Court Case That Will Affect Every Aspect of National Life

Can the federal census form ask whether each member of a household is a U.S. citizen?
Source: Brian Snyder / Reuters

The outcome in Department of Commerce v. New York, which the Supreme Court will hear on April 23, will affect virtually every aspect of our national life, from the right to vote to the balance of power in Congress and the Electoral College to the scope of federal educational, health, and welfare programs. At issue is whether next year’s federal census form can include a question asking whether each member of a household is a U.S. citizen. Although the case has constitutional dimensions—the census itself is created by the Constitution— the result is likely to turn on whether the Department of Commerce, which administers the census, properly read Title 13 of the United States Code.

Every American knows that we have “separation of powers” in our system. But what does that mean? In essence, it means that Congress can create, change, or repeal statutes but can’t enforce them, and the executive branch can enforce statutes but can’t create, change, or repeal them.

Courts are called in as referees when someone alleges that an agency’s enforcement actions don’t match the authority Congress has given it—that, in essence, the president or those who

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