Citizenship Question Lawsuit Plaintiffs Ask Supreme Court To Delay Ruling

Jun 12, 2019
Originally published on June 13, 2019 10:43 am

Updated June 13 at 10:20 a.m. ET

Advocacy groups that sued to block the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to delay issuing a ruling on the question's fate.

In a filing released Wednesday, they cite recently uncovered documents that they say show an alleged cover-up of the real reason the Trump administration wants the hotly contested question on forms for next year's national head count.

"The significance of this case cannot be overstated. The census happens once a decade and there is no chance for a do-over," said Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project who helped represent the plaintiffs in the lawsuits. "The Supreme Court should not permit the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the census based on an incomplete and misleading record."

The Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision by the end of the month on whether the Trump administration can include on census forms the question, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" The case was argued before the justices in April, more than a month before the plaintiffs brought forth the newly revealed documents.

The justices are under pressure to make a ruling by July 1, which is the deadline by which the Census Bureau says it must start printing 1.5 billion census forms, letters and other mailings.

Last week, a federal judge at a lower court in New York set a schedule through early August for reviewing the plaintiffs' cover-up allegations. During a hearing, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman — whose ruling to block the administration's plans for the question was appealed to the Supreme Court — called the latest allegations "serious," but he stopped short of making any rulings that would interfere with the high court's review.

The administration has maintained it wants a citizenship question on the census to better enforce part of the Voting Rights Act.

But the plaintiffs argue that the documents of a deceased GOP redistricting strategist show that the administration was driven to add the question to give Republicans and non-Hispanic white people a political advantage when new voting maps are drawn after the 2020 census. They allege that a Justice Department official and a former consultant to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census, provided false or misleading testimony about the question's origins for the lawsuits.

Kelly Laco, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, which is representing the administration in this legal battle, declined to comment on the plaintiffs' request.

Both attorneys for the administration and the plaintiffs informed the Supreme Court of the new allegations earlier this month. The justices are set to meet Thursday to discuss the remaining cases in their current term, which is currently scheduled to end in just over two weeks.

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A fight over the census is being waged in two different areas. The Trump administration, as you may have heard, wants to ask if the person being counted is a U.S. citizen. That's the question they have proposed for the 2020 census. The Supreme Court is considering this request after dozens of states and cities and advocacy groups sued. Yesterday, the president asserted executive privilege to block Congress in the other battle because Congress is seeking information about why it is the administration so wants this question. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering this very complex story. He's on the line.

Good morning, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How do these two things relate - the fight in Congress to investigate and the lawsuit?

WANG: Well, the fight in Congress involves the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which has been in a battle for months with the Trump administration over documents, internal emails and memos that the Democrats on this committee say they want to see as part of their oversight duties.

And now that the committee has voted to hold U.S. Attorney General William Barr, as well as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt - and Ross, by the way, oversees the Census Bureau. Now that this contempt vote has been passed, the chair of the committee, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, can go directly to the courts and ask the courts to force the Trump administration to release unredacted versions of these documents that the Democrats want to see. Those documents can provide, maybe, additional evidence that could be helpful to the plaintiffs in these ongoing legal battles over the citizenship question and could provide more insight into exactly why the Trump administration wants to add this question to the 2020 census.

INSKEEP: OK, so they're not being sought for the lawsuit, but they could affect the lawsuit. And I wonder if this helps explain a new development in the lawsuit. Even though time seems to be very, very short with the census coming right up, advocacy groups are asking the Supreme Court to delay their judgment on this. Why?

WANG: The plaintiffs in one of the New York-based lawsuits - they're led by the ACLU - are saying that other documents that were recently disclosed - these were documents of a GOP redistricting strategist who died last year, Thomas Hofeller. These documents, the plaintiffs here argue, could - are evidence, they say, that the Trump administration allegedly was part of a cover-up. The real reason that they believe - the plaintiffs here - they believe that the reason for a citizenship question is to politically benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic white people in the next round of redistricting after the 2020 census.

The Trump administration says that Thomas Hofeller did not play any role in the official request for a citizenship question. But the Democrats on the House Oversight Committee also want to get to the bottom of this. And they say that they want to bring more light to understanding exactly why this question was added because there's so much concern about this question - that it could harm the accuracy of the 2020 census.

INSKEEP: So there are documents from this outsider saying that the purpose for such a plan would be to benefit Republicans specifically and non-Hispanic whites. That's documented. The question is whether people inside the administration embrace that view. And those are the documents that are at issue both for the lawsuit and for Congress?

WANG: No. There are a lot of documents at issue.


WANG: But Congress is interested in internal emails within the Justice Department and also Commerce Department, portions of which have already been released, but there are lots of redactions. And the question here is whether those redactions reveal any additional insight into whether or not the Trump administration - why it wants this question and if it really has anything to do with the Voting Rights Act.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. His reporting is always on the air here unredacted.

Hansi, thanks so much.

WANG: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And he'll bring us more as we learn it.

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