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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