AP NEWS

Government urges judge to toss NAACP lawsuit over census

January 15, 2019
Attorneys leave the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Md., after a hearing on the federal government's motion to dismiss the NAACP lawsuit over concerns about the 2020 census. From left are NAACP general counsel Bradford Berry, Joseph Schottenfeld, third-year student at Yale Law School, and Jeffrey Zalesin, third-year student at Yale Law School. (AP Photo/Michael Kunzelman)

GREENBELT, Md. (AP) — Government attorneys on Monday urged a federal judge in Maryland to throw out a lawsuit that claims inadequate funding and staffing for the U.S. Census Bureau will lead to a massive undercount of blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities in 2020.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Grimm didn’t immediately rule after hearing arguments from attorneys representing the Census Bureau and the NAACP.

Prince George’s County, Maryland, a predominantly black county in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., joined the civil rights group in suing the Census Bureau and President Donald Trump last March.

The NAACP claims poor planning for the nation’s first-ever digital census will exacerbate undercounts and leave the 2020 Census vulnerable to cyberattack.

Government lawyers argue that the NAACP’s concerns about census preparations are premature and based on nothing more than conjecture.

Justice Department attorney Stephen Ehrlich told the judge there has never been such a sweeping challenge to census procedures at such an early stage of the process. He added that the NAACP’s lawsuit alleges “entirely speculative injuries that may never occur.”

“They want a fishing expedition because they don’t know what their claims are,” Ehrlich said.

The NAACP’s suit says failing to fully count blacks has been a persistent problem, with a 2.1 percent net undercount of blacks in the 2010 census. But the group claims the Census Bureau has never been so ill-prepared.

The Census Bureau operated without a permanent director for months before the Senate voted earlier this month to confirm Trump’s pick for the position. The NAACP’s suit says a hiring freeze has limited the bureau’s ability to fill other staff vacancies. The suit also says the bureau canceled important field tests last year in Puerto Rico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington state.

“Despite these imminent threats to the accuracy and integrity of the 2020 Census, the Bureau has been operating on the cheap, without sufficient funding to address its many challenges,” the suit says.

Government lawyers argue the NAACP concerns about undercounting leading to lost federal funding and lost legislative seats are “future harms” that can’t occur before the 2020 census has been conducted.

Jacob Alderdice, one of the attorneys representing the NAACP, said ruling out a lawsuit before the census is completed would make it too late to remedy all of the problems.

“This is an urgent matter that is ripe for resolution,” he said.

The judge said it’s clear there has never been a completely accurate census.

“It’s just impossible to do given how fluid our society is,” he said.

The judge also noted that Congress and the courts have been “extremely deferential” to the Census Bureau’s role in deciding its methods and means.

The judge instructed the attorneys to file post-hearing briefs on Jan. 21 before he rules on the government’s request for him to dismiss the lawsuit.

The judge asked Ehrlich about the effect of the partial government shutdown on the Census Bureau. Ehrlich said the agency has the funds to continue operating through February without a disruption.