A federal judge has ruled against the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
In the first major ruling on the question, Judge Jesse M. Furman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ordered the administration Tuesday to stop its plans to add the question to the survey “without curing the legal defects” identified in his opinion.
The New York case is the first of three high profile trials around the country that are challenging the question. The government will likely eventually appeal Tuesday’s ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, setting the citizenship question up for an unpredictable ride through multiple courts that could potentially result in simultaneous conflicting rulings.
Plaintiffs in the trial include 18 states and several cities and jurisdictions, along with civil rights groups. The trial addressed two of seven lawsuits that arose from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s March decision to add the question. A trial over the question is already underway in California and another is set to begin Jan. 22 in Maryland.
Opponents of the question say it would reduce response rates in immigrant communities and make the constitutionally mandated decennial survey costlier and less accurate. The government said the question was necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Both sides have pushed for a speedy process, given the tight deadlines the decennial survey is up against. Most immediately, the survey forms and other material are scheduled to be printed in June, leaving little time for the multiple appeals expected in the case
In his ruling, Furman blasted Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for “egregious” violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, including ignoring a statute that requires him to collect data through administrative records instead of through direct inquiries on a survey such as the census.
Furman called Ross’s decision to add the question “arbitrary and capricious,” adding that Ross had “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 — a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut APA violations.”
Ross also failed to follow other laws, including a statute requiring that he notify Congress of the subjects planned for any census at least three years in advance, Furman wrote, adding that the plaintiffs had proved they would be harmed by the question.
Plaintiffs hailed the decision. “This ruling is a forceful rebuke of the Trump administration’s attempt to weaponize the census for an attack on immigrant communities,” said Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which was a plaintiff in the case.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kelly Laco said, “We are disappointed and are still reviewing the ruling.” She added that the government is “legally entitled to include the question on the census.”
The Trump administration had tried several times to stop the case from going forward, notably through requests to the Supreme Court.
Tuesday’s verdict could affect the remaining two trials where civil rights groups, and others are suing the government for similar violations of the APA. The administration has sought, unsuccessfully, to stop both.
“Judge Furman’s ruling lays out a very clear roadmap,” said Thomas Wolf, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. .“The initial win here is already setting the table for other district courts to rule in a similar way.”
A key question in the lead-up to the trial was where the request for the question had originated. Ross testified before Congress that it came from the Justice Department, but documents released in the case indicated that he had asked the Justice Department to make the request after consulting with White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon and others.
In his ruling, Furman noted that “Defendants’ own documents and expert witness confirm that adding a citizenship question to the census will result in a significant reduction in self-response rates among noncitizen and Hispanic households.”
Democratic lawmakers have railed against the addition of the question, saying it would lead to an undercount that could affect congressional redistricting as well as the distribution of federal funding. Undercounts caused by the question would be more likely in Democratic areas where there are large immigrant communities.
Democratic lawmakers have said they will seek to defund or otherwise block the question if it is not stopped by litigation.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) on Tuesday praised the ruling, saying it “confirms what we knew all along: The addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census was politically motivated and unlawful.”
Six former Census Bureau directors who served under Republican and Democratic administrations also opposed adding the question, which has not undergone the rigorous testing that new questions generally go through before being added to the forms.
Testing of Census 2020 questions has been completed, but after an outcry about the untested citizenship question, the Census Bureau said it plans to test the question this summer. That testing would come after forms are scheduled to be printed but could help the bureau anticipate and plan for the question’s effect on response rates.