Third Federal Judge Blocks Census Citizenship Question

(AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Less than three weeks before the Supreme Court weighs the issue, a federal judge in Maryland on Friday became the third to block the Trump administration’s decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

In a 119-page opinion on Friday, U.S. District Judge George Hazel said there is “more than sufficient evidence” that the Commerce Department’s claim that it added the question because the Justice Department said it was necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act was nothing more than pretext. Hazel also found the addition of the question would hamper the accuracy of the census in violation of the Constitution.

“The unreasonableness of defendants’ addition of a citizenship question to the census is underscored by the lack of any genuine need for the citizenship question, the woefully deficient process that led to it, the mysterious and potentially improper political considerations that motivated the decision and the clear pretext offered to the public,” Hazel wrote.

But Hazel, a Barack Obama appointee, stopped short of finding the administration included the question with the intent to discriminate against Hispanic people.

“In the absence of any other non-pretextual rationale, discriminatory animus may well be the most likely explanation for Secretary [Wilbur] Ross’ addition of the citizenship question, but that is not the same as saying it has been proven by a preponderance of the evidence,” the judge wrote. 

The case was filed last May in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland by a collection of civil and immigrant rights groups, lawmakers and people who claim including the question on the census would cause the once-a-decade survey to undercount minority groups, jeopardizing federal funding and accurate representation.

Hazel is the third federal judge to block the Commerce Department from including the question on the upcoming census, following judges in New York and California. The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in the case out of New York on April 23.

Detailing the lengthy record in the Maryland case, Hazel wrote it is clear Ross became interested in adding a citizenship question well before the Justice Department formally requested it. Hazel’s opinion recounts numerous emails, memos and conversations between people in the Trump administration as officials worked to justify the question.

According to the opinion, Ross and others in the Commerce Department pressed to include the question even after the Census Bureau said it was unnecessary to meet the Justice Department’s need to enforce the Voting Rights Act and would lead to a less accurate tally.

“Faced with the Census Bureau’s analysis that [the Department of Justice’s] stated goals could be best achieved without adding a citizenship question and that a citizenship question would be costly and harmful to data quality, Secretary Ross nonetheless persisted in his efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census,” Hazel wrote. 

The House Oversight Committee earlier this week authorized a series of subpoenas aimed at finding out the true reason Ross included the question. 

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund national senior counsel Denise Hulett, who represents the groups in the case, on Friday called the ruling “very comprehensive” in detailing how the citizenship question got onto the 2020 census.

“It affirms that the constitutional mandate to count the total number of persons means exactly what the Constitution says,” Hulett said in an interview Friday.

The Commerce Department also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.  

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