Trump administration plan for census citizenship question ruled against by third federal judge

WASHINGTON — A third federal judge on Friday ruled against the Trump administration's plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, concluding that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross illegally "manufactured" a false reason to add the controversial question and wrote a "misleading" memo to justify the move. 

U.S. District Judge George Hazel issued a 119-page decision in Maryland that supported rulings issued in January and March by federal judges in New York and California. All three judges were nominated by President Barack Obama.

Hazel wrote that Ross repeatedly ignored the advice of researchers and career staff at the Census Bureau, who concluded that citizenship data could best be obtained through other means.

"The Census Bureau repeatedly, consistently, and unanimously recommended against adding a citizenship question to the 2020 decennial census," Hazel said. 

To justify his decision, Ross pressured the Department of Justice for months to make a formal request for the citizenship question, which Hazel described as a "manufactured" reason. The judge said Ross then "failed to disclose the true basis for his decision" in public pronouncements and testimony before Congress.

Hazel also declared the administration's action unconstitutional because it would "unreasonably" compromise the accuracy of the census, which is used to apportion congressional districts and distribute more than $900 billion in federal funds. An undercount of immigrant-heavy communities could cause states such as California, New York, Texas and Florida to lose representation and federal grant money.

"Overwhelming evidence supports the Court’s finding that a citizenship question will cause a differential decline in Census participation among non-citizen and Hispanic households," Hazel wrote.

But Hazel said challengers did not prove that the question was racially motivated, which they had alleged was a civil rights violation.

In March 2018, the Commerce Department announced the citizenship question would be added to the decennial census for the first time since 1950. 

A third federal judge ruled Friday against the Trump administration's plan to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. The Supreme Court takes up the issue later this month.

A wide range of critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the states of California and New York, argued that adding the question was an attempt to intimidate non-citizens from participating in the census. That would lead to population undercounts in minority communities, costing them seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and billions of dollars in federal funding, they charged.

In January, Judge Jess Furman in New York blocked the addition of the question, calling the secretary's contention that he made his decision based solely on a request from the Justice Department a "sham justification." In a 277-page ruling, Furman ruled that Ross made his decision for other reasons, then tried to conceal his motives.


Last month, Judge Richard Seeborg in California struck down the same question, ruling that its inclusion in the 2020 census would lead to such drastic population undercounts that it "threatens the very foundation of our democratic system." 

After the New York ruling, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case during its April calendar. A decision is expected by the end of June, in time for the Census Bureau to begin printing the document.

Hazel's ruling emboldened challengers who have been preparing for the high court showdown. 

"The federal courts are unanimous that when you look at the actual evidence in front of Secretary Ross, it indicates that this question is worse for the census," said Dale Ho of the American Civil Liberties Union, who will argue the case later this month. "There's no way that anyone can look at this record and rationally conclude that this question actually advanced the goal of having more accurate information about citizenship."