Federal Judge Rules Against Trump Administration's Citizenship Question on Census

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP File Photo

State and local governments are among the groups that have objected to the Census asking about citizenship status.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated a federal law in deciding to include a question on the 2020 census asking about citizenship status and the question should for now be left off the survey, a federal district court judge in New York ruled on Tuesday.

Judge Jesse M. Furman, of the Southern District of New York, issued the ruling in one of several cases unfolding in federal courts around the nation, some of them brought by state and local governments, challenging the Trump administration’s move to add the question.

“Secretary Ross’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census—even if it did not violate the Constitution itself—was unlawful for a multitude of independent reasons and must be set aside,” Furman wrote in his 277-page decision.

The judge's ruling blocks the Commerce Department from adding the question "without curing the legal defects identified" in the opinion.

A Justice Department spokesperson, Kelly Laco, said the department was still reviewing the ruling. But Laco defended Ross's decision to include the question asking census respondents if they are United States citizens, and said the information the question could yield would help to protect voters against racial discrimination.

"Our government is legally entitled to include a citizenship question on the census and people in the United States have a legal obligation to answer," Laco added in an email.

Two sets of plaintiffs pursued the case: a coalition of 18 states and the District of Columbia, fifteen cities and counties, and the United States Conference of Mayors, and a group of of advocacy organizations.

They asserted that Ross violated the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution and a federal law known as the Administrative Procedure Act by deciding to add the question.

Furman concluded the commerce secretary committed a "smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut" Administrative Procedure Act violations, but said the Due Process claims fell short.

The Administrative Procedure Act guides the processes agencies use to develop and issue regulations. Furman acknowledged that the statute's requirements may be derided by some as “red tape.”

But he said the law “exists to protect core constitutional and democratic values: It ensures that agencies exercise only the authority that Congress has given them, that they exercise that authority reasonably, and that they follow applicable procedures.”

Furman's ruling describes how Ross "failed to consider several important aspects of the problem; alternately ignored, cherry-picked, or badly misconstrued the evidence in the record before him; acted irrationally both in light of that evidence and his own stated decisional criteria; and failed to justify significant departures from past policies and practices." The judge added that the secretary's violations of the Administrative Procedure Act "are no mere trifles.”

Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, one of the advocacy group plaintiffs, applauded the decision.

"Judge Furman rebuked the Trump administration’s naked attempt to circumvent the law for its own gain," Choi said in a statement.

Ross announced his decision to include the question last year, with Commerce saying it followed a request by the Justice Department. But it later came to light that Ross and other administration officials had discussed including the question prior to the DOJ request. 

Those opposed to the question have argued that adding it threatens to undermine the accuracy of the once-a-decade headcount.

A key concern is that it could deter participation in immigrant communities worried about how the federal government might use the information, raising the prospect of undercounting in locations with large immigrant populations.

Among the reasons this matters is that the census helps to guide the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding, as well as the allocation of congressional representatives for each state and members of the Electoral College.

Furman recognized the high likelihood of appeals in the case. It’s widely expected that the legal controversy over the question will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We’re ready to fight this battle all the way up to the Supreme Court and win," said New York Immigration Coalition's Choi.

A dispute tied to the case is already pending before the Supreme Court, with oral arguments scheduled for Feb. 19.

It involves questions about whether legal challenges brought under the federal Administrative Procedure Act allow for lawyers to obtain evidence outside of “the administrative record,” to help them gain insight into the thinking of agency decision makers.

In the case decided Tuesday, the question took on significance because it concerned whether Ross and other high-level officials could be deposed as part of legal proceedings.

A trial is also underway in a case in California where the state and local governments are challenging the citizenship question. Closing arguments are set for Feb. 15.

Two other related cases that center on the question are before a Maryland federal district court. 

One involves opposition from Maryland and Arizona residents, the other was brought by advocacy groups representing minorities and immigrants—such as La Union Del Pueblo Entero and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

A judge granted a request to consolidate those two cases in December and a trial is set to begin next Tuesday.

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