Asking about citizenship on the 2020 census is legal — but the Trump administration may still have broken the law in how it went about adding the question to the list, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
Judge Jesse M. Furman ruled that a legal challenge to the citizenship question can proceed, giving the challengers a chance to try to prove that President Trump’s team acted with “animus” toward racial or ethnic minorities in making the decision.
Judge Furman said he already sees “indications” of such animus, based on the way the government cut corners to put the citizenship question on the list for 2020.
The judge said he was particularly troubled by the Trump campaign’s move to take credit for the decision to ask the question, crediting the president with “officially” mandating its inclusion.
“Courts have a critical role to play in reviewing the conduct of the political branches to ensure that the census is conducted in a manner consistent with the Constitution and applicable law,” the judge wrote.
The citizenship question was asked on the decennial census up through 1950, and still appears in more limited Census Bureau surveys.
But when the Trump administration moved earlier this year to reinstate it to the full census that goes to every household, immigrant-rights, voting-rights and Democratic activists objected.
They predicted immigrants and racial or ethnic minorities may refuse to participate in the census, fearing what might happen to their information. That would lead to a skewed count, which would deny some areas money and voting power they should rightly have if everyone was properly counted, the administration’s opponents said.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr., who oversees the Census Bureau, originally said he added the question at the behest of the Justice Department, which said the question could help it better enforce voting-rights violations.
But more recent documents show Mr. Ross had considered adding the question even before the Justice Department request, raising concerns over his motivation.
Judge Furman said there’s no doubt a citizenship question is legal and Mr. Ross “had the power” to add it. But he said if the government added it with suspect motives, that could make the question illegal.
New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood, who is leading the case for a coalition of Democratic state attorneys general, called the ruling “a big win.”
“The Trump administration’s plan to demand citizenship status as part of the Census is unlawful — and it would potentially cause a huge undercount that would threaten billions in federal funds and New York’s fair representation in Congress and the Electoral College,” she said.
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