Federal Judge Thwarts Latest Attempt to End Census Count Early

Lauri Dawn Kindness, left, helps a family participate in the U.S. Census on the Crow Indian Reservation, in Lodge Grass, Montana, Aug. 26. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge on Thursday shot down the Trump administration’s latest attempt to end the 2020 U.S. census count early, finding its decision to set a new closeout date of Oct. 5 violated her prior order.

“Defendants’ dissemination of erroneous information; lurching from one hasty, unexplained plan to the next; and unlawful sacrifices of completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census are upending the status quo, violating the Injunction Order, and undermining the credibility of the Census Bureau and the 2020 Census,” U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh wrote in a 15-page clarifying order Thursday night. “This must stop.”

Koh had issued a temporary restraining order on Sept. 5 and a preliminary injunction on Sept. 24 ordering the Census Bureau to reinstate its prior plan of continuing counting operations through the end of October.

The bureau had announced in August that it would wind down operations one month early, on Sept. 30, to meet a statutory deadline of getting census results to the president by year’s end.

Koh found that the shortened timeline would threaten the accuracy of population data and lead to an undercount of “historically undercounted individuals.”

Despite Koh’s injunction ordering the government to revive the prior deadline, the Census Bureau announced in a tweet Monday that it nevertheless planned to halt operations by Oct. 5.

When Koh ordered the Census Bureau to produce records on its abrupt decision during a hearing that same day, Trump administration lawyers argued “the tweet does not have an administrative record” because it “doesn’t involve a final agency action.”

Despite its initial protests, the administration eventually produced records showing the decision to stop counting on Oct. 5 was made in four days after Koh issued her injunction on Sept. 24.

“Even though the Census is a $15.6 billion dollar operation that took nearly a decade to plan, Defendants’ production showed that the Census Bureau developed the October 5 ‘target date’ in the span of four days with the same legal defects as the Replan,” Koh said, referring to the prior plan for ending the count on Sept. 30.

The records showed that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was presented two options: to stop field work on Oct. 5, which would enable the Bureau to deliver population data for allocating congressional apportionment to the president by Dec. 31, or continue field work after Oct. 5 to improve accuracy, which would force the bureau to miss that Dec. 31 deadline.

In a Sept. 28 email, Ross asked a Census Bureau official to confirm that ending the count by Oct. 5 would allow the bureau to deliver apportionment data to the president by Dec. 31. Within 30 minutes of receiving confirmation, the Bureau sent out a tweet announcing its new Oct. 5 end date.

The same day that tweet was posted, census officials sent conflicting text messages to field workers, telling some that the court order was still in place and required counting to continue through Oct. 31 while others were told that field work would end Oct. 5.

“Defendants’ clear, fast, and concerted advertising of the October 5 date stands in stark contrast with Defendants’ chaotic, dilatory, and incomplete compliance with the Injunction Order,” Koh wrote.

Koh ordered the Census Bureau to send new text messages to all of its employees on Friday notifying them of the court order and clarifying that all data collection operations will continue through Oct. 31.

She also required Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham to file a sworn declaration by Monday afternoon confirming the bureau’s compliance with the court’s injunction and detailing steps taken “to prevent future violations of the Injunction Order.”

Los Angeles is one of multiple plaintiffs who sued to block the Census Bureau’s accelerated timeline for the decennial population count.

In a statement Friday, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer called the judge’s decision a key victory for everyone who relies on an accurate census count for federal funding and fair political representation.

“Judge Koh made it utterly clear that she will not tolerate any further Trump Administration efforts to cut this vital process short,” Feuer said. “The Administration must stop playing games with this fundamental constitutional requirement and ensure the hard work of counting every American is accomplished.”

Earlier this week, a divided Ninth Circuit panel rejected a request to stay Koh’s injunction, finding “the status quo would be seriously disrupted” if the Census Bureau were to cease its population counting work. 

The Census Bureau issued a statement Friday saying it will comply with the court’s order.

“As a result of court orders, the October 5, 2020 target date is not operative, and data collection operations will continue through October 31, 2020. Employees should continue to work diligently and enumerate as many people as possible,” the statement reads.

Koh, a Barack Obama appointee, and two other judges are scheduled to hear arguments on Thursday in two separate lawsuits challenging President Donald Trump’s July 21 directive ordering the Census Bureau to exclude non-U.S. citizens from population data used to allocate congressional seats, which could weaken the political power of urban areas and Democratic-leaning states.

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