Reopened Challenge to Census Citizenship Question Throws Case Into Chaos

Reopened Challenge to Census Citizenship Question Throws Case Into Chaos

The battle over whether to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census was thrown into turmoil on Tuesday, just as the Supreme Court was expected to issue a ruling on the dispute this week.

By allowing a district judge to reopen a case related to the origin of the citizenship question, a federal appeals court raised the prospect that the federal government might be unable to meet a deadline for completing census questionnaires that include it, regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

New hearings in the reopened case would stretch well beyond July 1, which is the deadline for printing the questionnaire and other forms. The Census Bureau has said that meeting that deadline is essential to conducting the head count on time.

In a 2-to-1 ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit halted its review of a decision in two Maryland lawsuits challenging the citizenship question and returned the case to United States District Judge George J. Hazel. The judge had asked last week to reopen the case after newly discovered documents on the computer backups of a deceased Republican strategist raised questions about the administration’s motivation for seeking to add the question.

[How a deceased G.O.P. strategist’s hard drives revealed new details on the census citizenship question.]

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Judge Hazel now has license to explore that issue and indicated this week that he would give plaintiffs in the Maryland lawsuit 45 days to gather new evidence. One appeals court judge suggested in the ruling on Tuesday that Judge Hazel should issue an injunction barring the addition of the question to the census until the new proceedings are finished.

Should that happen, as appeared likely on Tuesday, the Census Bureau could print forms with a citizenship question on schedule only if the Supreme Court approved its addition and if the injunction were lifted — a decision that also would probably be made by the justices.

The appeals court’s ruling effectively throws a wrench into a hugely consequential legal dispute that already had been fast-tracked through the courts because of the bureau’s printing deadline.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, has said he ordered the citizenship question added to the census because the Justice Department needed citizenship data to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. But judges in three federal lawsuits opposing the question, including Judge Hazel, have called that a poorly manufactured excuse that conceals a different motivation.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuits — cities, states, advocacy groups and others — say Mr. Ross is trying to turn the census into a political weapon against Democrats. They say the citizenship question will deter noncitizens and minorities from filling out the form, leading to an undercount in the predominantly Democratic areas where they live. And they charge that the Republican Party wants a count of noncitizens so that it can exclude them entirely from the population base used for drawing new political maps, hobbling Democratic representation and increasing the number of Republicans in Congress and state legislatures.

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