Judge Halts Trump Plans for Early Shutdown of Census Operations

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)

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — U.S. Census officials are reviving quality-control measures and postponing layoffs of census takers after a federal judge on Saturday temporarily blocked the statistical agency from winding down operations by the end of this month.

In a court filing submitted Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau said it would not lay off census takers in the final stages of following up with nonresponsive households. It also temporarily rescinded a policy that would make all areas eligible for closing out nonresponse follow-up starting Sept. 11.

The Census Bureau will resume its prior practice of having field operators make six attempts to confirm if housing units reported as vacant are actually are vacant, instead of making only one attempt under a plan put in place by the Trump administration on Aug. 3.

The bureau will also reinstate the requirement of six attempts to contact households slated for second interviews, instead of making only one attempt. The bureau said it will re-interview households selected by random sample, a practice that was suspended under the Aug. 3 plan.

On Saturday, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh ordered the Census Bureau to stop implementing its Aug. 3 plan. The plan included shortening the deadline for completing in-person interviews to Sept. 30, a month earlier than previously scheduled.

The Census Bureau argued it needed to accelerate the timeline to deliver the 2020 Census results to the president by Dec. 31 after the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate failed to take up a request to extend that deadline from Dec. 31, 2020, to April 30, 2021.

Voting rights groups who sued argued that the rushed plan would violate the constitutional requirement that the U.S. government conduct an accurate count of the country’s population every 10 years.

The decennial survey determines the amount of federal funding and number of congressional representatives and electoral votes for each geographic area and state in the nation.

In a 7-page ruling issued Saturday, Koh found a temporary restraining order justified because the harm inflicted by an inaccurate census would take another 10 years to fix without immediate court intervention.

“An inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade, which would affect the distribution of federal and state funding, the deployment of services, and the allocation of local resources for a decade,” Koh wrote.

The judge also cited a census official’s declaration stating it would be more difficult to rehire census takers after they are laid off. A lack of staff would complicate the bureau’s ability to revert to the Covid-19 response plan put in place last April before an accelerated timeline was adopted in August, according to Albert Fontenot Jr., associate director of the Census.

“Fontenot’s declaration underscores plaintiffs’ claims of irreparable harm because the bureau is terminating field staff now and will have difficulty rehiring such staff,” Koh wrote.

The judge also cited Fontenot’s statement during a July 8 press briefing that the bureau is “past the window of being able to get accurate counts to the president by Dec. 31, 2020.”

Citing the Supreme Court’s decision last year that blocked the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census,  Koh said Congress has made clear the public has a strong interest in an accurate census that “fairly accounts for the crucial representational rights that depend on the census and the apportionment.”

A hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction in the case is scheduled for Sept. 17 in San Jose, California.

Census officials say that if the court orders it to extend its deadline for in-person follow-up after Sept. 30, it will not be able to meet the constitutional deadline for delivering results to the president by Dec. 31.

Plaintiffs who sued to block the Census Bureau’s accelerated plan include the National Urban League, League of Women Voters, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, NAACP, Navajo Nation, Gila River Indian Community, Chicago, Harris County, Texas, King County, Washington, and the California cities of Los Angeles, Salinas and San Jose.

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