A federal judge in New York has barred the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, calling the Commerce Department’s decision a “veritable smorgasbord” of violations of federal law.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kelly Laco told The Washington Post that administration officials are “disappointed” in the decision and that they are “legally entitled to include the question on the census.”
Critics of adding the question, including the plaintiffs of the lawsuit challenging it, said its purpose was to discourage noncitizens from participating in the census out of fear of being targeted for deportation. If that happened, the plaintiffs — a coalition of 18 states, several cities and other groups led by the state of New York — said there would be a severe undercounting of the U.S. population, affecting both reapportionment of seats in Congress as well as how much federal aid states receive for a wide variety of purposes.
“Today’s ruling is a win for New Yorkers and Americans across the country who believe in a fair and accurate count of the residents of our nation,” New York Attorney General Letitia Jame said in a press release Tuesday. “The attempts by the Trump Administration to mandate a question about citizenship were not rooted in a desire to strengthen the census process and would only undermine our immigrant communities. Inciting fear in our residents is not only immoral, but also ill-conceived.”
However, federal judge Jesse Furman wrote in his 277-page decision that the plaintiffs had presented insufficient evidence that the intent of the question was to discriminate against the approximately 24 million noncitizens in the country. Instead, he said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated the federal Administrative Procedures Act. The act, Furman wrote, “prohibits federal agencies from acting in a manner that is arbitrary and capricious or not in accordance with law.”
“He 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,” Furman wrote.
With that, Furman also wrote that Ross failed to notify Congress of the subjects of the Census at least three years prior to it, another violation of federal law.
Finally, Furman picked apart Ross’ argument that the Justice Department had asked for the question be added to allow for better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. In fact, internal documents that surfaced during the lawsuit showed that the Justice Department initially rejected Ross’ request and only gave in after months of persuasion.
The case is likely on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, probably landing there before this summer when the Commerce Department would traditionally begin printing Census forms. The next step will bring the case to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Furman.