SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A lawsuit claiming the Trump administration used a false motive to justify adding a census question that could weaken the political power of Democratic strongholds must go to trial next month, a federal judge ruled Friday.
In a 17-page order, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg said he needs a bench trial to weigh the credibility of statements made by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other officials to determine if Ross "had a valid basis for adding the citizenship question."
The state of California and six cities, including Los Angeles and San Jose, sued the Trump administration this year after Ross announced in March that a citizenship question would be added to the 2020 census. Opponents say asking that question will lead to an undercount of immigrants and a reduction in political representatives, electoral votes and federal funding for places like California, which has more than 10 million immigrants.
Seeborg noted documents released after the lawsuit was filed leave "little doubt" Ross "entered office with an interest in reinstating the citizenship question," which was removed from the decennial survey after 1950.
Ross told Congress in March that he was adding the citizenship question at the request of the Department of Justice, which stated in a letter months earlier that it needed citizenship data to help with enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
But Ross acknowledged in a June 2018 memo that he was the one who first sought to add a citizenship question, and that he had asked the Justice Department to submit a letter that would support his decision to add it.
The Justice Department argues that just because Ross wanted to add a citizenship question earlier doesn't mean he did not believe in the stated rationale, or that the stated rationale is invalid.
"While plaintiffs present seemingly strong evidence of an ulterior motive, this question cannot be resolved without certain inferences and credibility determinations regarding statements in the record," Seeborg wrote in his ruling.
The judge said he also needs a trial to test claims that Ross improperly ignored the Census Bureau's recommendations against adding a citizenship question. The bureau warned adding the question would likely harm the accuracy of the count and produce unreliable results.
Another issue centers on whether "new circumstances existed" that gave the secretary legal authority to change the census within two years of the official count. Seeborg said there appears to be "little daylight" between the positions of the Trump administration and the cities and state government challenging the decision.
"Here, both arguments turn on whether the secretary’s reliance on the DOJ’s formal request was mere pretext or whether the DOJ’s request was in fact the basis for modifying the census questionnaire," Seeborg wrote.
The judge denied the U.S. government's motion for summary judgment and the city of San Jose's motion for partial summary judgment.
A bench trial of five to seven days is scheduled to start in San Francisco on Jan. 7.
“Today’s ruling allows us to move forward in our fight to ensure a fair and accurate 2020 census,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement Friday. “President Trump’s unconstitutional decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census goes against the spirit and purpose of a nonpartisan census process.”
A separate trial on the census citizenship question wrapped up in New York late last month. A federal judge in Maryland is also reviewing a set of lawsuits challenging the new census policy, and the Supreme Court is expected to decide next year whether Secretary Ross should be required to testify about his decision to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census.
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