U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

A Manhattan federal court judge on Tuesday made a preliminary finding that there was “strong” evidence the Trump administration acted in bad faith when deciding to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census in a ruling to move forward New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood’s lawsuit over the question about citizenship.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York made the finding in a ruling from the bench, Underwood’s office said in a news release. The ruling came after oral arguments on a motion to dismiss by the administration, which was not decided Tuesday according to a spokesman from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The decision means Underwood’s office may proceed with discovery in the lawsuit, which was filed in April by attorneys general from 18 states, including New Jersey. The coalition is suing to block the Trump administration from asking about citizenship on the upcoming census.

Underwood is leading the lawsuit. She hopes to learn through discovery what went into the decision by federal officials to reinstate the citizenship question.

“Today marked a major win in our lawsuit to protect the census, with a federal judge ordering the Trump administration to provide vital information on how the decision to demand citizenship status was made, and what it may mean for New Yorkers and Americans across the country,” Underwood said in a statement.

The attorneys general claim in their lawsuit that asking about citizenship will decrease turnout in states with large immigration populations, like New York. That could cause those states to have fewer representatives in Congress and the Electoral College. A smaller recorded population could also mean less federal funding in areas like education and health care, according to Underwood.

“By demanding the citizenship status of each resident, the Trump administration is breaking with decades of policy and potentially causing a major undercount that would threaten billions in federal funds and New York’s fair representation in Congress and the Electoral College,” Underwood said.

The Commerce Department announced in March that the question would appear on the 2020 census. According to a press release, the U.S. Department of Justice requested the change in December 2017. Officials at those agencies thought adding the question would help better enforce the Voting Rights Act, the release said.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross then wrote a memo on June 21 about the decision, in which he said his agency had already considered adding the citizenship question before the Justice Department made their request.

“Soon after my appointment as secretary of commerce, I began considering various fundamental issues regarding the upcoming 2020 census, including funding and content,” Ross wrote. “Part of these considerations included whether to reinstate a citizenship question, which other senior administration officials had previously raised.”

A spokesman for the Commerce Department reacted to Tuesday’s decision in a statement.

“We are disappointed that the court in New York did not defer fact discovery until after a ruling on a motion to dismiss,” the spokesman said. “We are confident that the plaintiffs’ case is without merit, that any allegations of bad faith are specious, and that we will prevail in court.  We look forward to continuing to work with the Census Bureau to conduct a complete and accurate 2020 census.”

Underwood is joined in the lawsuit by attorneys general from Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.