Judge Blocks Trump Plan to Wrap Up US Census Early

A briefcase of a census taker is seen as she knocks on the door of a residence Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Winter Park, Fla. A half-million census takers head out en mass this week to knock on the doors of households that haven’t yet responded to the 2020 census. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

(CN) — A federal judge has blocked the Trump administration’s plan to end the decennial census count a month early — a ruling that is virtually guaranteed to be appealed.

U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh granted a preliminary injunction late Thursday to a consortium of civil rights groups, cities and counties seeking to stop the Trump administration from shortening the 2020 U.S. Census. The conclusion was foregone as Koh has routinely chastised the Trump administration lawyers — who barely put up an argument at a hearing this week — for failing to produce the necessary documents or doing so hours before hearings in the case. 

Koh had already temporarily stayed the administration’s plans to end the census early. The preliminary injunction makes the stay more durable. 

“It seems like the court is inclined to agree with the plaintiffs,” Alexander Sverdlov, arguing on behalf of the Trump administration on Tuesday. “We merely ask that you issue a preliminary injunction so we can ask for appellate relief on a timely basis and as expeditiously as possible.”

As expected, the Trump administration appealed the decision promptly, with the Ninth Circuit on Friday morning. 

Koh handed down that preliminary injunction Thursday night, penning a 78-page decision that concludes the U.S. Census Bureau formulated a plan in reaction to Covid-19 that would lead to a significant undercount of communities across the nation. 

“As the administrative record shows, the replan will decrease the census’ accuracy and undercount historically undercounted individuals,” Koh wrote. 

The “replan” is how the bureau referred to its plan to conduct the census amid a global pandemic. Instead of delaying the overall deadline of Dec. 31, the Trump administration decided to shorten the period in which the bureau collects population data while also truncating the all-important follow-up phase from 11.5 weeks to 7.5 weeks. 

“The effect of this shorter timeframe will be particularly pronounced due to the pandemic. Covid-19 has not only made it more difficult to hire enumerators but also made it more difficult for enumerators to conduct safe and effective NRFU,” Koh wrote, using the acronym for non-response follow-up, where census takers circle back to households that did not respond during the first round. 

The plaintiffs in the case, including Kings County in Washington state and the city of Salinas, California, home to many low-income non-English speaking residents, said the shortening of the follow-up phase, in particular, will lead to undercounts in historically underrepresented counties. 

These undercounts, they argue, will not only compromise the validity of the census data but will affect how federal funding is allocated. The plaintiffs say this will mar a process known as apportionment, where congressional seats are allotted to states based on population counts derived from the census. 

Koh’s preliminary injunction prevents the census bureau from winding down the follow-up period of the census process, which the bureau had planned to do at the end of September. 

Melissa Arbus Sherry, an attorney who argued on behalf of plaintiffs, praised Koh’s decision. 

“We are gratified by the court’s well-reasoned and swift ruling on this important, time-sensitive case,” Sherry said. “As the court recognized, the census bureau has itself repeatedly recognized that a full, fair, and accurate count takes time, especially when faced with a historic pandemic. Every day that the 2020 Census count continues, and census operations appropriately continue, will help ensure the accuracy and completeness of this once-in-a-decade tally.” 

The internal documents that were produced by the Trump administration showed that high-ranking census officials did not believe they could carry out an accurate count on an accelerated time frame. 

“It is ludicrous to think we can complete 100% of the nation’s data collection earlier than Oct. 31 and any thinking person who would believe we can deliver apportionment by Dec. 31 has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation,” wrote associate director of field operations Timothy Olson in an July email to other officials. 

Olson said many of the census takers were afraid to go door to door because of the pandemic and as a result the census bureau had difficulties retaining reliable employees. 

“People are afraid to work for us,” Olson wrote in a different July email. 

The Trump administration argued it needed to truncate the census count to meet a constitutionally mandated deadline. But critics argue the administration is ignoring its deadline so that it can control the apportionment process.

If the census is delayed and Democrat Joe Biden wins the election, the Trump administration would not be able to weigh in on how congressional seats are divided up throughout the country. 

Trump has been focused on the census for some time, attempting to include citizenship questions on the census, which was disallowed by the court. In July, Trump penned an executive order that required undocumented immigrants be removed from any census county. Supporters argue only citizens should weigh in on factors like federal funding and apportionment, while critics say the order is a ploy to take funding and congressional sway away from blue states with large immigrant populations like California and Nevada. 

The inspector general for the U.S. Commerce Department, which oversees the census, recently released a report that cast doubt on the agency’s ability to conduct an accurate count by the stipulated deadlines. 

The Trump administration says it has completed about 95% of the census and believes it can ramp up the remaining count procedures before the month is out. 

Neither the Commerce Department nor the Justice Department responded to requests for comment by press time. 

There are several pending cases in federal court related to the 2020 Census, most of which revolve around the citizenship question. 

The case before Koh, now headed to the Ninth Circuit, is the main case that deals with the question of a shortened timeline. 

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