Judge Denies Feds’ Attempt to Dismiss Census Lawsuit

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. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

(CN) — A federal judge excoriated the Trump administration in a ruling, saying officials in the U.S. Census Bureau violated the court’s injunction by shutting down data collection early and that the agency’s plan to count the population in the United States during a pandemic is likely to result in a less accurate count. 

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh denied the Trump administration’s attempt to dismiss the case, saying the coalition of cities, counties and civil rights groups were justified to be concerned that the government’s plan to alter the census process to accommodate the pandemic would affect federal funding and political representation in certain communities.

“The administrative record shows that the Replan will likely lead to an undercount that results in loss of crucial federal funds for programs that affect [Plaintiffs’] daily life,” Koh wrote in a 57-page ruling handed down late Tuesday night. 

The census operates in four stages, it issues and collects a questionnaire, then follows up with those who don’t respond. Once the data collection period is over, the bureau processes the data and compiles the report, which is typically due by Dec. 31 of any given census year.

This year the pandemic caused the bureau to delay the follow-up period for three weeks in March and the bureau then sought to end the data collection period early in September instead of late October. 

Plaintiffs, including the county of Los Angeles and the city of Salinas, sued the bureau, saying the early deadline would lead to undercounting in their communities, which would affect the allocation of federal funds and congressional representation. 

Koh issued an injunction forcing the bureau to keep counting. On Tuesday, Koh wrote that the Census Bureau willfully violated that injunction while appealing the ruling. 

“Perhaps the most egregious violation of the Injunction Order occurred on Monday, September 28, 2020. At 1:58 p.m., two minutes before the Court’s case management conference, the Census Bureau tweeted one sentence: ‘The Secretary of Commerce has announced a target date of October 5, 2020, to conclude 2020 Census self-response and field data collection operations,’” Koh wrote in the ruling. “Later, the Census Bureau issued a one-sentence press release with the exact same sentence.”

Koh has often expressed dissatisfaction with government lawyers during remote hearings, chastising U.S. Attorney Alexander Sverdlov at times, who for his part has seemed more interested in biding time to make appeals rather than offering persuasive arguments. 

Sverdlov has argued that census decisions are political in nature and are therefore not subject to the court’s jurisdiction but under the purview of the executive branch. 

Koh disagreed. 

“The Supreme Court and lower courts have repeatedly rejected the argument that the political question doctrine bars review of census-related decision-making,” Koh said. 

The judge also noted the Government Accountability Office, the bureau’s advisory committee and the inspector general of the U.S. Commerce Department all found the Trump administration’s plan to truncate the census would result in a less accurate count. 

“Given the historically low census response rates in the City of Los Angeles and City of Salinas in California, the Replan creates a substantial risk that their residents will not be counted, and a substantial risk of diminished political representation,” Koh wrote. 

There is another census case pending in federal court related to the question of whether to include undocumented workers in the overall census count. 

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