A federal judge on Sunday ordered the Census Bureau to put a hold on efforts to wind down in-person counting for the 2020 Census a month ahead of schedule.

U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of California Lucy Koh issued a temporary restraining order barring the Census Bureau from shutting down operations until a hearing in a lawsuit challenging the practice scheduled for Sept. 17.

The Census Bureau has begun releasing staff and otherwise cutting operations in an effort to cease in-person counting by Sept. 30, a month ahead of the deadline of Oct. 31 it previously chose to make up for delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A coalition of civil rights groups, civil organizations and local governments sued last month to block the plans, and in her ruling Saturday, Koh stated that the order is necessary as the challengers would face “irreparable harm” if the efforts to wind down the census are allowed to continue.

“Because the decennial census is at issue here, an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade, which would affect the distribution of federal and state funding, the deployment of services and the allocation of local resources for a decade,” the judge wrote.

The order noted a sworn statement by Al Fontenot, associate director for the 2020 census, in which he confirmed the bureau had begun releasing temporary workers that have “completed their work.”

“It is difficult to bring back field staff once we have terminated their employment,” he said.

Fontenot went on to say that if a court were to order the bureau to continue counting past Sept. 30 it would not be able to provide the first set of census results by the Dec. 31 deadline.

“While Census Bureau staff have demonstrated considerable resilience and flexibility during this difficult year, some certainty as to the amount of time available to conclude data collection and post processing will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome,” he said.

Thomas Wolf, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice helping to represent the plaintiffs, hailed the ruling as a “necessary and encouraging first step” toward preventing an undercount in the census.

“Today’s ruling buys the census some precious and indispensable time by barring the administration from shutting down the count while the federal courts are still considering our request for relief,” said Wolf.

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