Judge Keeps Census Suit on Track for March Trial

In this June 25, 2020, file photo, two young children hold signs through the car window that make reference to the 2020 U.S. Census as they wait in the car with their family at an outreach event in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — A high-profile lawsuit involving civil rights groups, cities and counties over the Trump administration’s handling of the 2020 census will go to trial in March, after a federal judge rejected calls to fast-track it.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh told attorneys for the National Urban League, a civil rights organization, that she would not honor their request to move up a trial to decide whether the Trump administration used the coronavirus as an excuse to undercount populations in urban centers that typically lean Democratic. 

“The trial is scheduled for March 2021,” she said during a hearing Friday afternoon. 

While the plaintiffs lost their bid for an expedited trial, they won several victories over the course of the hearing, most notably convincing Koh to allow discovery to begin immediately. 

Alexander Sverdlov, arguing for the Department of Justice and the U.S. Census Bureau, said discovery at this stage is inappropriate, given that there was still a question about the nature of the claims. 

“The scope and availability of discovery is going to depend on whether this is an APA action,” Sverdlov said, referring to the Administrative Procedure Act which governs the procedures and processes for how federal agencies develop and implement regulations. There remains some question as to whether the Census Bureau’s decision to collect data in a compressed timeframe due to the pandemic was a final agency action. 

If so, then it can be adjudicated under the act. If Koh decides the agency was simply using its discretion and not issuing final actions, plaintiffs may still have recourse to pursue some claims but discovery burdens may shift. 

Koh did not seem receptive to the argument, noting that a motion to dismiss filed recently contained similar arguments she and other appellate judges have already rejected during the battle over the preliminary injunction. 

The plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the bureau from winding down the count at the end of September instead of the end of October. Koh granted it, a decision affirmed by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit. 

But the Trump administration appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which lifted the preliminary injunction without explanation in mid-October. 

Koh said Friday that the Supreme Court’s decision is of little import to the merits of the case. 

“The Supreme Court did not issue an opinion,” she said. “In fact, there were no reasons stated. Also, the preliminary injunction related to one of three causes of action.”

Koh has been receptive to arguments that shutting the census down early could compromise the congressionally mandated duty of the Census Bureau to carry out an accurate count. The Trump administration says the law also requires the bureau to adhere to deadlines, including delivering a completed census by the end of the calendar year. 

The legal issues come amid a backdrop of political concerns over the way the Trump administration has conducted the 2020 census. The census not only serves to give a reliable indication of population levels and demographics but also determines funding allocation for federal dollars and grants as well as apportionment — how many congressional seats are awarded to each state based on their respective populations.

As the Trump administration unsuccessfully attempted to put a citizenship question on the census questionnaire, critics maintain Trump is committed to undercounting minority communities in places like New York and California, states generally hostile to his policy agenda. If so-called blue states like California and New York saw their congressional delegations reduced, that could help tip the balance of power toward the GOP in the House of Representatives.

There are other census-related cases pending around the nation, including several that center on the question of whether the Census Bureau can add a citizenship question. 

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