Keep Counting, Ninth Circuit Tells US Census Bureau

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 FRANCISCO (CN) — The 2020 U.S. Census count will continue, a divided Ninth Circuit panel ruled Wednesday, denying a stay of a lower court order barring the Trump administration from ending the decennial population count one month early.

“Based on our preliminary review of the record, we conclude that the status quo would be seriously disrupted by an immediate stay of the district court’s order,” U.S. Circuit Judges Johnnie Rawlinson, a Bill Clinton appointee, and Morgan Christen, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in a 10-page opinion.

U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh granted a preliminary injunction last week in a lawsuit brought by multiple civil rights groups, cities and counties seeking to stop the Trump administration from shortening the census count.

To account for disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau adopted a plan in April that extended deadlines for self-response and nonresponse follow-up from July 31 to Oct. 31.

On Aug. 3, the Census Bureau released a new “replan” requiring field operations to close by Sept. 30. The bureau said the accelerated timeline was necessary to deliver 2020 Census results to the president by Dec. 31, after the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate failed to take up a request to extend the deadline to April 30, 2021.

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 shortening the time in which census takers follow up with nonresponding households will lead to undercounts in historically underrepresented communities.

These undercounts, they argue, will compromise the accuracy of population data used to determine how much federal funding and how many congressional seats are allocated to states and local communities.

Citing comments by Census Bureau officials that the agency will not be able to get accurate results to the president by Dec. 31 at this point regardless of the deadline, the panel’s majority found the evidence “compellingly supports the district court’s conclusion that moving the Oct. 31 deadline to Sept. 30 will not allow the bureau to complete the census on time.”

The majority further noted the Census Bureau’s announcement Monday that it intends to end the decennial count on Oct. 5 in apparent disregard for the court’s order “contradicts the government’s argument that the Sept. 30 date is vitally important to the bureau’s ability to meet its statutory reporting deadline.”

Additionally, Rawlinson and Christen concluded that staying the injunction would cause thousands of census takers in the field to lose their jobs, making it “difficult if not impossible” to restart field operations which “took years of planning and hiring efforts to put in place.”

In a 23-page dissenting opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Patrick Bumatay, a Donald Trump appointee, said he would have stayed Koh’s injunction because the Census Bureau has no choice but to meet its mandatory end-of-year deadline for getting results to the president.

“Clearly, a district court has no authority to order an executive agency to disobey a congressional statute,” Bumatay wrote. “Neither the district court nor plaintiffs have cited any authority for this unprecedented expansion of the judicial power to decide cases and controversies.”

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 in Washington state, and the California cities of Los Angeles, Salinas and San Jose.

In a statement Wednesday, the National Urban League said the appeals court’s decision will help ensure a “full, fair and accurate” tabulation of the total number of people living in the United States as required by the U.S. Constitution.

“The court’s decision affirms our contention that changes to the census schedule will irreparably harm the integrity of the 2020 Census and result in a devastating undercount of vulnerable communities,” National Urban League president and CEO Marc Morial said in a statement.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, did not immediately respond to an email request for comment Wednesday.

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