Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross | Credit: Courtesy PBS

As we mark the nation’s 243rd Fourth of July, I find myself scrounging for any evidence of rational life. Last week, I was willing to see it in the unlikely likes of Fox commentator Tucker Carlson. This week, it’s the Supreme Court.

Who’s to say which is more delusional? 

The good news is that Chief Justice John Roberts issued a 97-page opinion this past week quietly exclaiming that he’s not constitutionally obligated to be as a big a fool as Wilbur Ross, Secretary of the Department of Commerce and forensically certified pathological liar, would like him to be. In so doing, Roberts has temporarily prevented Ross from inserting a strategically inflammatory question about citizenship into next year’s Census count. Almost as impressive was the way Roberts ​— ​who no doubt will be played by Tom Hanks when his biopic is made ​— ​steered clear of the word “liar,” beaten beyond death by current circumstances in Washington.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ​— ​a five-star flim-flam man who allegedly ripped off investors for $120 million ​— ​is charged with counting the number of people residing in the United States every 10 years as part of the Census. Getting it right matters for all local governments. But in Santa Barbara, where our chief industry is local government, it matters a lot, maybe by as much as $126 million a year. That’s because the more people who get counted, the more money local government gets. The more people who don’t get counted, the same thing, just in reverse. It’s that simple.

Immediately upon taking office, Ross displayed a breathtaking indifference to the core missions for which his opaquely named agency is responsible, which include life-or-death functions such as weather forecasting, for example. But from week one, Ross was singularly fixated on one thing: getting the question “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” inserted into the Census questionnaire. 

Ross naturally offered a multitude of explanations. None bore up to the flimsiest of scrutiny. Ross insisted that the Department of Justice had asked him to include this question as a way to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. As cover stories go, this constituted an affront to the intelligence of the Chief Justice. Evidence clearly demonstrated that the Department of Justice “sought” this language only after having its arms severely twisted by Ross and his underlings, and only after half a dozen other departments had resisted similar entreaties. The real intent ​— ​as everyone recognized in the moment ​— ​was to scare off immigrants from answering the Census questionnaire.


The smoking gun ​— ​still hot four years later ​— ​was the treasure trove of memos released by the estranged daughter of now-deceased Republican consultant Thomas Hofeller, who conducted a secret study on voter-suppression techniques on behalf of an unnamed GOP mega donor in 2015. That study concluded that a question about citizen status should absolutely be included in the 2020 Census to scare off immigrant participation. By systematically undercounting immigrant populations, district boundaries could be more easily fashioned that would “be advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” In 2016, Hofeller made the same case to the Trump transition team. More than that, Hofeller was the one to suggest the ruse about the Voting Rights Act. In fact, Hofeller reportedly ghost-wrote a key portion of the Voting Rights Act’s legal justification that the Justice Department ultimately signed off on as if it were its own.

It wasn’t merely that Ross lied that bothered Chief Justice Roberts. After all, Ross is infamous for having claimed to have been $3 billion richer than he actually was to business publication Forbes Magazine. Instead, it was the utter indifference of Ross’s effort that clearly insulted Roberts. Had Ross sought to conjure a fig leaf with as much diligence, it would have left all genitals fully exposed. 

Still, Roberts was relatively delicate in his outrage. But pointedly so. In one passage, he noted “a significant mismatch between the decisions the Secretary made and the rationale he provided.” In another, he adds, “The evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the Secretary gave for his decision.” Roberts underscored the “great lengths” Ross went to get the Justice Department to request the citizenship question. “Here the VRA [Voting Rights Act] enforcement rationale ​— ​the sole reason stated ​— ​seems to have been contrived.” Later, he concluded, “Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. If Judicial review is to be more than empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case.”

In Santa Barbara, this is of interest because 10-15 percent of the people living here are not citizens. To the extent they are chased off by the question, we all suffer by the loss of millions in federal dollars. Because such an undercount would disproportionately affect North County districts, it might ​— ​ironically ​— ​help cement the tenuous majority enjoyed by Democrats and liberals on the board of supervisors. 

In recent weeks, the Supreme Court also affirmed the free speech right to trademark off-putting product names like “Fuct.” Even with Roberts’s ruling on Ross, we’re still very much Fuct. Roberts, after all, left the door open for Ross to come back with a better lie. But given looming deadlines for the Census Count, there’s not much time left.  

In the meantime, we’re still standing. So, Happy Fourth. But no tanks…. 

Correction: It is Secretary Ross, not Chief Justice Roberts, who allegedly scammed investors of $120 million and is now in charge of the 2020 Census.


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