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Federal judge blocks citizenship question on 2020 census

January 15, 2019

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the Trump administration from asking about citizenship on the 2020 census, ruling that the government cut too many corners in its decision-making on adding the question.

The ruling is a serious blow to President Trump, whose campaign has repeatedly bragged about the controversial question’s inclusion.

Judge Jesse M. Furman, an Obama appointee to the bench, rejected immigrant-rights groups’ claims that the question was motivated by racism or other nefarious motives, saying those claims went unproven.

But he did say Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, ignored the advice of experts who said adding the question in could frighten people from taking part in the 2020 count.

“Secretary Ross violated the public trust,” Judge Furman wrote in a 277-page scolding.

His ruling won’t be the last word. The Supreme Court had already agreed to hear one small part of the case whether Mr. Ross could be forced to testify.

And the Trump administration is bound to appeal Judge Furman’s decision.

The Justice Department said Tuesday it is still reviewing the decision, but defended Mr. Ross’s decision-making.

“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. Reinstating the citizenship question ultimately protects the right to vote and helps ensure free and fair elections for all Americans,” said Kelly Laco, a department spokesperson.

Judge Furman acknowledged his opinion was too long, but said it was the result of his thorough investigation of the case and the weighty stakes in the 10-year count, upon which political power and billions of dollars in federal aid are divided.

In his decision, Judge Furman said that there’s nothing inherently wrong with asking about citizenship and indeed it’s been asked in the past on the decennial census, and is still asked on the American Community Survey, the rolling census that takes place every year for a small percentage of Americans.

But the judge said that in this case, Mr. Ross ignored key checks built into the process to vet questions, such as extensive testing about the best way to ask them, and what effects their appearance might have on public participation.

There was no “pretesting,” nor did Mr. Ross ask for a waiver from the pretesting requirements. Instead, Mr. Ross said the question had been “well tested” before, including on the more narrow annual community survey, so there was no need to go through the hurdles again for the 2020 count.

Judge Furman rejected that. He said he believes at least one in five households will refuse to answer the 2020 census because of the citizenship question with a large share of those coming among Hispanic households, presumably because they are most connected to illegal immigration.

He also questioned the story Mr. Ross and his team told about why the question was added, and its subsequent defense of the decision.

“Those acts and statements are not the transparent acts and statements one would expect from government officials who have decided, for bona fide and defensible reasons, to change policy,” he wrote. “Instead, they are the acts and statements of officials with something to hide.”

Immigrant- and minority-rights activists, which had led the lawsuit, cheered the decision as a major hindrance to the Trump administration’s policies.

“It has been obvious since day one that the Trump administration rushed to add a citizenship question to intimidate and undercount immigrant communities,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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