Skip Navigation
Analysis

Court Strikes Down Controversial Census Citizenship Question

It's a major blow to the Trump administration as it fights lawsuits over whether the question can be added to the census.

On Tuesday, a federal district court in Manhattan blocked the Trump Administration from adding a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 Census. The ruling is a major victory for groups who say that the late addition of a citizenship question would undermine a full and accurate census. 

The 277-page ruling by Judge Jesse M. Furman addressed claims by two groups of challengers: a coalition of states, cities, and counties led by New York State and a group of several civil and immigrant rights organizations.

Judge Furman ruled that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (pictured) violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) — a federal law that governs how agencies exercise their powers — when he decided to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Judge Furman held that Ross’s decision was arbitrary and made in spite of overwhelming evidence that the question will depress census response rates.

“[Ross] 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 (our emphasis).

Although litigation about the citizenship question has resulted in explosive revelations about how the question came to be, the court ultimately based its ruling only on the official administrative record — the 1,320 pages that the Commerce Department filed in June and claimed were all the documents Ross relied upon when he decided to add the question. Judge Furman noted that there was plenty of other evidence outside of the official record illustrating that Ross acted in bad faith. But he concluded that even without that additional evidence, it was clear that Ross’s purported reason for adding the question — to enforce the Voting Rights Act — was "pretextual," or a made-up excuse.

But while Furman ruled that Ross’s decision was a “veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut APA violations,” (our emphasis) he rejected claims that addition of the question was intended to discriminate against minority communities. Judge Furman wrote that the evidence presented by plaintiffs was not enough to prove “that it was a pretext for discrimination.” He acknowledged, however, that it is possible that the plaintiffs could have won this claim had they been able to question Ross under oath. (Earlier in this case, Furman gave the challengers permission to question Ross, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review. In light of his opinion today, which concluded the trial process, Furman revoked his previous order allowing the Ross questioning as no longer necessary — though it’s unclear how that will affect the pending Supreme Court case). 

The Trump Administration will likely appeal today’s decision to the higher courts, including the Supreme Court, with a goal of getting a final decision before June 2019, when census forms have to go to the presses. In the meantime, two other cases are currently pending in federal district courts in California and Maryland. Those cases will be decided independently from the New York cases. Today’s ruling, however, marks out a path for the judges in those cases to follow.

(Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)