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Court Greenlights More Challenges to Census Citizenship Question

California lawsuits aiming to block the inclusion of the question can move forward, a federal judge has ruled

August 20, 2018

Update, 8/22 2:40pm: A federal court in Maryland has rejected the government’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the citizenship question. That marks the third time in a month that a court has dealt the government a setback in a case dealing with the citizenship question.


A federal court in California has dealt a significant blow to the Trump administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. In a short order issued over the weekend, Judge Richard Seeborg of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected the administration’s attempt to dismiss two pending lawsuits — one led by the State of California, the other filed by the City of San Jose and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. 

Judge Seeborg’s ruling marks the second time in less than a month that a federal court has ruled for groups challenging the citizenship question. (The first occurred in July, when a federal court in New York also rejected the administration’s attempt to have lawsuits filed by the State of New York and the New York Immigration Coalition dismissed.)

The ruling sets the table for a potential January trial in the California cases.

Opponents of adding the citizenship question warn that it will reduce Census response rates in communities with large concentrations of immigrants or mixed-status households, among others, leading to a less accurate count. 

Judge Seeborg’s ruling has made the administration’s path forward far tougher by rejecting the core of its defense: that the federal courts are powerless to supervise the Commerce Department’s decision to add the citizenship question.

The administration pressed this defense aggressively in its motion, arguing, among other things, that the plaintiffs’ challenges raised “political questions” that the court could not answer and that the Commerce Department’s decision was a completely discretionary one that courts could not review.

But Judge Seeborg ruled that the administration’s political question defense failed “for at least four reasons,” including for relying on “semantics rather than substance” and for deploying a “strained reading” of the Constitution.

The court similarly dismissed the administration’s defense that “the decision to reinstate a citizenship question is … a discretionary determination that is insulated from judicial review,” pointing to the Constitution, as well as “a substantial body of federal regulations and Census Bureau policies” as sources for its authority to police the census. As the court concluded, the administration presented “no persuasive reasons” to support its position.

Judge Seeborg was careful to note that the plaintiffs would still have to present evidence at trial to support their claims. But the plaintiffs have cleared important early hurdles to their claims. 

For more on these and the other census cases as they develop, visit our regularly updated case pages.