How much bad faith do you have to show? That’s what Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch asked earlier this week, expressing not only his own doubts but those of his forever-mute associate, Clarence Thomas. At last count, there were about 675 billion answers to this question, one for each dollar the federal government spends on government programs that receive federal funding based on information gathered every 10 years by the U.S. Census. Nothing, it turns out, is more diabolically political than the seemingly simple act of counting people.
At issue before the Supreme Court this week was whether attorneys general from the states of New York and California should be allowed “to probe the mental processes” of the Cabinet member responsible for making sure this constitutionally mandated count is conducted fairly and thoroughly. That man is Wilbur Ross, Secretary of the Department of Commerce. Most of us know nothing about the Commerce Department and even less about Ross. Among connoisseurs of white-collar crime and slime, Ross is famous for being so reflexively crooked that he’d try to cheat himself in a game of solitaire.
This matters now because Ross is pushing to ask census respondents a question about their citizenship status. This, of course, is a white-hot-button issue for all the obvious reasons. With the president threatening to send 5,200 troops to the Mexican border and to personally abolish the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to anyone born in the United States regardless of their parents’ status, people with uncertain immigration status might be afraid to participate. That is, obviously, the whole point.
States with high immigrant populations tend to vote disproportionately Democratic. By counting fewer immigrants, those states could find themselves with fewer congressional districts, meaning less clout in Washington. According to California’s Public Policy Institute, the citizenship question could result in a Golden State undercount of 1.6 million people. That’s enough to reduce the size of California’s congressional delegation. It happens all the time. In the last census, 10 states saw a decrease in the number of their Congressional districts; eight saw increases. That changes the fundamental balance of power.
And of course, it affects how much federal money — health-care dollars, education grants, highway construction pork, school lunch money, block grants, Section 8 housing vouchers, and Head Start, to name just a few — any given community is eligible to receive. About 14 percent of California’s population are non-citizens. In 2015, California got $77 billion in federal funds tied directly to population counts. Cut that by 14 percent, and everyone — citizen and non-citizen alike — feels the pain. Santa Barbara County has roughly 70,000 noncitizen immigrants, Ventura 110,000. If they’re not counted, that’s a lot of real money down our drain.
States challenging Ross’s citizenship language wanted to put him under oath on the witness stand in the federal trial scheduled to begin next week. They wanted to show what a liar Ross is and to prove he’s acted in bad faith. Ross initially insisted that he included the citizenship question only because the Department of Justice asked him to. That was not truthful. Documents subsequently unearthed reveal that it was Ross who first pushed Justice to ask for this. The same documents revealed that the question emerged out of conversations between Ross and Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former political consigliere. It was Ross, the records show, who ignored the objections of his senior administrative staff that the citizenship question would imperil the accuracy of the census count. The government already had cheaper, more reliable, less intimidating ways to get at citizenship data, they argued.
This lack of honesty was not sufficient to persuade Justice Gorsuch — who wrote the majority opinion — of Ross’s inherent bad faith. Ross, he ruled, would not have to answer questions under oath. Gorsuch didn’t see what he didn’t want to see. “This is all very unusual to say the least,” he explained. Forbes magazine, however, found decidedly otherwise, documenting in excruciating detail what an exemplary liar and cheat Ross has been in his business dealings. According to Forbes, Ross had been accused of fraud over time by no fewer than 21 former business associates and investors. In total, Forbes reporter Dan Alexander found, Ross was accused of bilking his victims of $120 million. Even if Ross ripped off only half that much, Alexander concluded, he’d still rank as one of the top “grifters” in American history. Alexander quoted one former business associate describing Ross as a “pathological liar”; another said he merely “pushed the edge of truthfulness.” Another source accused Ross of filching packets of Sweet’N Low from a restaurant he frequented. A Commerce Department spokesperson rebutted such claims, noting Ross did not put artificial sweeteners in his coffee. As recently as 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission fined Ross $2.3 million after ordering him to return $12 million.
Forbes, it should be noted, has an axe to grind where Ross is concerned. For 13 years, Ross, desperate to be included in Forbes’ annual list of the richest people in America, provided the magazine false information. He padded his portfolio — by a whole lot — claiming to be worth $3.7 billion. Forbes was suspicious and put him at $2.9 billion. In fact, it turned out, Ross was worth $700 million.
If and when the census citizenship trial begins next week, we’d be well advised to wonder whether Wilbur Ross is really the man to oversee how many people live in this country. How much bad faith do you have to show? It’s the same answer: “This is all very unusual to say the least.”