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National Urban League v. Ross

The National Urban League led a coalition of counties, cities, advocacy organizations, and individuals in a challenge to the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the U.S. Census Bureau’s Covid-19 plans and rush the data-collection and data-processing timelines for the 2020 Census.

Last Updated: March 29, 2022
Published: August 14, 2020


The National Urban League led a coali­tion of counties, cities, advocacy organ­iz­a­tions, and indi­vidu­als in a chal­lenge to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s decision to aban­don the U.S. Census Bureau’s Covid-19 plans and rush the data-collec­tion and data-processing timelines for the 2020 Census. The plaintiffs argued that the trun­cated timelines would lead to under­counts of communit­ies of color and result in inac­cur­ate census results in viol­a­tion of the U.S. Consti­tu­tion and the Admin­is­trat­ive Proced­ure Act.

Case Back­ground

The Covid-19 pandemic substan­tially disrup­ted the 2020 Census, result­ing in months of suspen­ded oper­a­tions and signi­fic­ant delays in crucial count­ing processes. Due to the pandemic, in April 2020, the Census Bureau imple­men­ted a Covid-19 plan that delayed the timeline for complet­ing its oper­a­tions in order to provide the Bureau with adequate time to ensure the qual­ity and accur­acy of 2020 Census data.

But on August 3, 2020, Secret­ary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dilling­ham reversed course and announced that the Census Bureau would be abandon­ing its Covid-19 plan, cutting its count­ing oper­a­tions short, and rush­ing comple­tion of the 2020 Census. That decision forced the Census Bureau to complete at least 7.5 months of data-collec­tion and data-processing work in 4.5 months when Bureau experts concluded that such rushed processing would signi­fic­antly under­mine the qual­ity of the 2020 Census.

The Bren­nan Center, along with the Lawyers Commit­tee for Civil Rights Under Law, Public Coun­sel, and the law firm Latham & Watkins filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the North­ern District of Cali­for­nia against Secret­ary Ross, the Depart­ment of Commerce, the Census Bureau, and Director Dilling­ham. We repres­en­ted the National Urban League; the League of Women Voters; the Black Alli­ance for Just Immig­ra­tion; the National Asso­ci­ation for the Advance­ment of Colored People; the Navajo Nation; the Gila River Indian Community; Harris County, Texas; King County, Wash­ing­ton; the city of San Jose, Cali­for­nia; and two commis­sion­ers on the Harris County Commis­sion­ers Court. The City of Los Angeles, the City of Sali­nas, the City of Chicago, the County of Los Angeles, and the Gila River Indian Community joined the chal­lenge and were repres­en­ted by separ­ate coun­sel.

The plaintiffs conten­ded that the Admin­is­tra­tion’s decision to aban­don the Census Bureau’s Covid-19 plans viol­ated the Bureau’s consti­tu­tional duty to make census-related decisions that “bear a reas­on­able rela­tion­ship to the accom­plish­ment of an actual enumer­a­tion of the popu­la­tion.” The plaintiffs also alleged that the decision was arbit­rary and capri­cious in viol­a­tion of the Admin­is­trat­ive Proced­ure Act because the Bureau did not provide an explan­a­tion for why it decided to cute the 2020 Census oper­a­tions short, and further alleged that the real reason for the decision was so that Pres­id­ent Trump can try to imple­ment his plan announced July 21, 2020, to exclude undoc­u­mented people from the state popu­la­tion totals used to appor­tion the U.S. House of Repres­ent­at­ives. 

The plaintiffs asked the court to declare that the rush plan viol­ated the Consti­tu­tion and federal law. The plaintiffs were also seek­ing a court order prevent­ing the Census Bureau from imple­ment­ing the rush plan, thereby requir­ing the Bureau to continue imple­ment­ing its Covid-19 plan. The Covid-19 plan included delay­ing the dead­lines for report­ing the state-popu­la­tion totals to the Pres­id­ent from Decem­ber 31, 2020, to April 30, 2021, and for report­ing redis­trict­ing numbers to the states from March 31, 2021, to July 31, 2021.

On Septem­ber 5, 2020, the court gran­ted the plaintiffs’ motion for a tempor­ary restrain­ing order, enjoin­ing the Admin­is­tra­tion from imple­ment­ing the rush plan until the court could conduct a hear­ing on the plaintiffs’ motion for a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion.

On Septem­ber 24, 2020, the court gran­ted the plaintiffs’ prelim­in­ary injunc­tion motion, find­ing that “Defend­ants failed to consider how Defend­ants would fulfill their stat­utory and consti­tu­tional duties to accom­plish an accur­ate count on such an abbre­vi­ated timeline,” in viol­a­tion of the federal Admin­is­trat­ive Proced­ure Act. The court’s order preven­ted the Census Bureau from oper­at­ing on the timeline it laid out in its rush plan, includ­ing its plan to end field oper­a­tions on Septem­ber 30 and report state-popu­la­tion totals to the pres­id­ent by Decem­ber 31, 2020. 

The federal govern­ment appealed the district court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit. Its appeal included requests for an emer­gency admin­is­trat­ive stay of the district court’s order and a stay pending the Ninth Circuit resolv­ing the appeal. On Septem­ber 30, 2020, the Ninth Circuit rejec­ted the Admin­is­tra­tion’s request for an admin­is­trat­ive stay. On Octo­ber 7, 2020, the Ninth Circuit partially denied and partially gran­ted the request for a stay. 

Under the Ninth Circuit’s order, the count had to continue until Octo­ber 31, 2020. The federal govern­ment appealed the lower court decisions to the Supreme Court. On Octo­ber 13, 2020, the Supreme Court stayed the prelim­in­ary injunc­tion in its entirety, thereby allow­ing the Census Bureau to cease its count­ing oper­a­tions at that time, two addi­tional weeks after the Bureau had inten­ded to stop the count under its rushed plan.

On Janu­ary 15, 2021, in a victory for the plaintiffs, the district court issued an order prohib­it­ing the federal govern­ment from releas­ing census numbers prior to Janu­ary 20, 2021 and stay­ing the case for 21 days. The Census Bureau imme­di­ately ordered its employ­ees to comply with the order and announced that no appor­tion­ment data or data regard­ing citizen­ship or immig­ra­tion status would be published until after the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion took office on Janu­ary 20, 2021.

On Febru­ary 3, 2021, the plaintiffs obtained an order prohib­it­ing the Census Bureau from releas­ing appor­tion­ment data before April 16, 2021.

On April 22, 2021, the court approved a stip­u­lated agree­ment to dismiss the case. Under the terms of the dismissal, the Census Bureau agreed not to release appor­tion­ment data before April 26, 2021. The Bureau also agreed not to factor any citizen­ship data that it may have collec­ted under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion into its appor­tion­ment or redis­trict­ing numbers as well as to declare that any citizen­ship-data products that it was creat­ing to help exclude undoc­u­mented people are stat­ist­ic­ally unfit for use for appor­tion­ment or redis­trict­ing purposes. The Bureau is also oblig­ated to produce certain metrics about the qual­ity of upcom­ing 2020 Census data releases and hold public brief­ings about those metrics.

Key Docu­ments 

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Case No. 20–16868, re: Admin­is­trat­ive Stay)

U.S. Supreme Court