Judge lets challenge to census citizenship question go forward
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NEW YORK — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a legal challenge to the 2020 census can go forward, saying there was an appearance of “bad faith” behind the Trump Administration’s disputed decision to add a question about citizenship.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman made the ruling at a hearing in federal court in Manhattan after citing contradictory statements by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about the rationale for a plan to send a census form to every household that asks people to specify whether they are U.S. citizens.
The move has fueled worries among Democrats that it will discourage immigrants from participating in the survey, thereby diluting representation for states that tend to vote Democratic and robbing many communities of federal dollars. A coalition of about two dozen states and cities have sued the U.S. government in New York to block the plan, calling it unconstitutional.
Ross, who oversees the census, had originally said he wanted the citizenship question asked for the first time since 1950 at the behest of the Justice Department so it could better enforce the Voting Rights Act. But in a court filing, Ross later said he came up with the idea in consultation with various government officials before seeking DOJ support for it.
Furman ruled from the bench that lawyers for the states and cities had “made a strong showing of bad faith” by the federal government, and could begin deposing officials over how the decision was reached. He told them to start with lower-level officials first, then consult him if they want to question Ross.
The judge also put off a decision on a government request to throw out the suit, but called it “unlikely” that would happen.
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In a statement, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood hailed the ruling as a major step toward upholding the government’s “solemn obligation to ensure a fair and accurate count of all people in this country.”
There was no immediate response to a message seeking comment from the Commerce Department.
Brett Shumate, a deputy assistant attorney general, argued on Tuesday that the plaintiffs were relying on a “speculative chain of inferences” to support the suit’s claim that adding the citizenship question would result in an “undercount” of people. The government has ways to ensure an accurate census, he said.
The commerce secretary “has those procedures in place and plans to count every person in America,” he said.
In court papers, the plaintiffs have said that the Census Bureau’s own research suggests that participation by Hispanics and other immigrants would decline if there’s a citizenship question.