A federal judge has struck down a decision by the Trump administration to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 U.S. Census, setting up what’s expected to be a drawn-out appeal process from the U.S. Department of Justice.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York said in the decision that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated the Administrative Procedure Act while deciding to add the citizenship question to the survey over the first year and a half of the Trump administration.
Furman said the plaintiffs in the case—a group of states and immigrant rights groups—had proven throughout the case that they would be harmed in various ways as a result of the question being added to the census.
New York Attorney General Letitia James is leading a coalition of 18 states in the litigation. The New York Immigration Coalition brought similar litigation, which was consolidated with the suit from New York for trial. The latter group is represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer.
The decision Tuesday is the first major victory for James in litigation involving the state since she took office earlier this month. Senior trial counsel Elena Goldstein and Executive Deputy Attorney General Matthew Colangelo led the case for New York.
“Today’s ruling is a win for New Yorkers and Americans across the country who believe in a fair and accurate count of the residents of our nation,” James said. “The attempts by the Trump Administration to mandate a question about citizenship were not rooted in a desire to strengthen the census process and would only undermine our immigrant communities. Inciting fear in our residents is not only immoral, but also ill-conceived.”
Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, called the ruling a “rebuke” to the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“The evidence at trial, including from the government’s own witness, exposed how adding a citizenship question would wreck the once-in-a-decade count of the nation’s population,” Ho said. “The inevitable result would have been—and the administration’s clear intent was—to strip federal resources and political representation from those needing it most.”
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, spoke in much of the same theme in a statement following the decision.
“Today’s ruling provides an important check against the anti-immigrant overreach of the Trump administration,” Lieberman said. “It has been obvious since day one that the Trump administration rushed to add a citizenship question to intimidate and undercount immigrant communities, ignored the recommendations of scientists at the Census Bureau, and then tried to cover its true motives. New Yorkers know that we all deserve representation and that no one should be intimidated from being counted.”
They had claimed that asking about citizenship would depress participation in states with large immigrant populations, like New York. That could reduce the number of representatives in Congress and the Electoral College in those states. It could also lower the amount of federal funding in areas like education and health care.
Furman echoed those claims in his decision.
“That undercount, in turn, will translate into a loss of political power and funds, among other harms, for various Plaintiffs,” Furman said. “In light of these and other factual findings, the Court holds that most, if not all, Plaintiffs have standing to bring their claims.”
Furman said Ross violated the Administrative Procedure Act when he failed to collect the appropriate data to support the decision and did not consider several other aspects of the issue. Ross, instead, sought advice from various individuals with a stake in the issue while making his decision rather than relying on research, Furman wrote.
“Most blatantly, Secretary Ross ignored, and violated, a statute that requires him, in circumstances like those here, to collect data through the acquisition and use of ‘administrative records’ instead of through ‘direct inquiries’ on a survey such as the census,” Furman said. “He failed to consider several important aspects of the problem; alternately ignored, cherry-picked, or badly misconstrued the evidence in the record before him; acted irrationally both in light of that evidence and his own stated decisional criteria; and failed to justify significant departures from past policies and practices—a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut APA violations.”
Furman said he came to his decision based on the administrative record, which is particularly important in the case. He granted a request from the plaintiffs in July that allowed them to seek and use evidence outside the administrative record in the case, including the depositions of top Trump administration officials.
That decision is on the docket to be reviewed next month by the U.S. Supreme Court, which could decide to strike the extra-record evidence from the case. That would have been means for an appeal from the Trump administration on its own if Furman had based his decision solely on the extra-record evidence.
A spokeswoman from the U.S. Department of Justice said it is still reviewing the decision, but are disappointed.
“We are disappointed and are still reviewing the ruling. Secretary Ross, the only person with legal authority over the census, reasonably decided to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 census in response to the Department of Justice’s request for better citizenship data, to protect voters against racial discrimination,” the spokeswoman said. “Our government is legally entitled to include a citizenship question on the census and people in the United States have a legal obligation to answer. Reinstating the citizenship question ultimately protects the right to vote and helps ensure free and fair elections for all Americans.”
The Trump administration has appealed virtually every decision from Furman in the case, including a ruling to allow the deposition of Ross in the case. That deposition was stayed while Furman’s decision on extra-record discovery is appealed to the Supreme Court.
Furman’s decision is lengthy—coming in at 277 pages. But one line early on in the ruling appeared to sum up his thoughts on the matter.
“In arriving at his decision as he did, Secretary Ross violated the law,” Furman said. “And in doing so with respect to the census … Secretary Ross violated the public trust.”