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New York Census Citizenship Trial Goes to Judge for Ruling

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s involvement takes center stage

November 28, 2018

In a filled Manhattan courtroom yesterday, closing arguments in a case challenging the Commerce Department’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census highlighted just how problematic a citizenship question would be. The case is the first of several related cases to go to trial.

At the hearing, lawyers for 17 states, the District of Columbia, several municipalities, and a coalition of advocacy groups told the court why the citizenship question violates federal law — and why it would undermine the quality and accuracy of the census — while attorneys for the Justice Department, which is representing the Commerce Department, made their last attempts to dissuade the court from ruling against it.

The challengers argued that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross whitewashed the truth in a March 2018 memo announcing his decision to add the question. They called Ross’s memo chock-full of “fact-free assertions,” including an assertion that the citizenship question will not lead to an undercount of the population, even though Census Bureau research suggests that the question will discourage people from filling out the 2020 census. They underscored the fact that an inaccurate census count will affect everything from the reporting of monthly unemployment rates to disease-prevention efforts for years to come. 

The challengers also highlighted evidence in the record indicating that Ross’s stated reason for adding the question — to obtain better citizenship data to enforce the Voting Rights Act — was pretextual.

The Justice Department for its part largely ignored the challengers’ evidence, countering that Ross’s stated reason was rational and legitimate and that the court therefore shouldn’t try to dive deeper into the secretary’s decision-making process. That decision-making process has been dubious, with Ross having changed his story about what really happened during the course of the litigation.

The trial judge plans to issue an opinion on whether the citizenship question is illegal in the next few weeks. The Supreme Court will hear an evidentiary issue in the case in February 2019, but its decision won’t be on the merits of the legal arguments. It won’t stop the cases from moving forward in the lower courts, with trials set to begin in January in California and Maryland. And the losing side in New York will be able to appeal the judge’s opinion immediately after he issues it. 

(Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)