(CN) – The Trump administration’s push to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census may have a “discriminatory purpose,” a federal judge in Maryland found Monday after reviewing new evidence.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced in 2017 that the census would for the first time in 50 years include a question about citizenship, claiming the question would help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act.
A number of states, cities and civil rights organizations lodged challenges to the proposed question in court, claiming it would discourage immigrants from participating in the census and siphon billions of dollars in federal funding from communities that would be undercounted.
U.S. District Judge George Hazel of Maryland blocked the inclusion of the question in April, finding it was “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedures Act and unconstitutional under the Enumeration Clause of the U.S Constitution.
Hazel blocked the Commerce Department from including a citizenship question but found the civil rights organizations failed to show their equal protection rights were violated. A federal judge in New York agreed Ross’ decision to add the citizenship question was arbitrary and capricious but stopped short of finding constitutional violations.
The groups asked Hazel to reconsider after unearthed files belonging to the late Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller showed that the proposed census update was designed to benefit white Republicans.
In a 14-page memorandum opinion issued Monday, Hazel wrote the new evidence suggests Hofeller directly recommended including the citizenship question in order to diminish the voting power of minority communities across the country.
“Plaintiffs’ new evidence potentially connects the dots between a discriminatory purpose – diluting Hispanics’ political power – and Secretary Ross’s decision,” Hazel wrote in the opinion. “As more puzzle pieces are placed on the mat, a disturbing picture of the decisionmakers’ motives takes shape.”
Hazel wrote the evidence bolsters the civil rights groups’ arguments that the citizenship question, or the use of a dataset that would not benefit minority communities, was part of a “process that was based in discriminatory purpose.”
But Hazel wrote that the court could not establish “discriminatory intent” on the part of the federal agency based on the evidence – and also rejected the agency’s argument that the new Hofeller evidence is inadmissible.
The Census Bureau, which is under the authority of the Commerce Department, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Supreme Court could render Hazel’s decision as moot this week by either affirming or reversing the ruling in the New York case.
If the Supreme Court orders the case remanded, however, and the Fourth Circuit – which currently has possession of the Maryland case – sends it back to Hazel, Hazel wrote he would issue a “speedy ruling” after reopening discovery and conducting a hearing.