The process behind Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to ask about people’s citizenship status on the 2020 U.S. census was “rotten to its core” and failed to consider that the question would cost California a substantial amount of money and at least one Congressional seat, an attorney for the state said Friday.
The state and some cities have filed lawsuits that seek to keep the question off the census.
Matthew Wise said during closing arguments in the lawsuits that census officials warned Ross the question would reduce the percentage of immigrants who respond to the survey. The state says that would lead to an undercount that would jeopardize its federal funding and representation.
Census numbers are used to determine states’ distribution of congressional seats and billions of dollars in federal funding.
Wise said Ross was determined to add the citizenship question and made up a justification to support it.
“The decision-making process in this case was not just unusual, it was extraordinary,” he said.
An attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, Brett Shumate, said the census has historically included a citizenship question. All households were last asked whether individuals were U.S. citizens on the 1950 census.
“It’s obvious why any country would want to know who the citizens are and who the noncitizens are in its country,” he said.
There was no evidence that Ross would have added the question without a request from the Justice Department, and a court can’t override the secretary’s judgment, Shumate said. Ross said in March that he was responding to a Justice Department request that the census ask about citizenship to improve enforcement of the federal Voting Rights Act.
The hearing came as the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a separate court ruling in New York that has so far blocked the administration from adding the question. That decision by U.S. Judge Jesse Furman came out last month.
Attorneys for the Justice Department, California and other plaintiffs before Seeborg said he should still rule so their cases might also go before the Supreme Court. Seeborg did not immediately issue a decision following closing arguments, but he appeared inclined to rule for California and the other plaintiffs on at least one of their claims.
The judge rejected Shumate’s argument that Ross was only responding to a request from the DOJ, pointing to an email Ross wrote in May 2017 to Commerce Department officials in which Ross said he was “mystified” why nothing had been done in response to his “months old request that we include the citizenship question.”
“You’re in a tough position because the record is just extraordinary in terms of the degree to which there was a mission as reflected in these comments to get this question on there come hell or high water,” the judge said.
The lawsuits by California and cities in the state say asking people whether they are citizens of the U.S. is politically motivated and would discourage Latinos in particular from participating in the population count.
The Justice Department argues that census officials take steps such as making in-person follow-up visits to get an accurate count.
Households that skip the citizenship question but otherwise fill out a substantial portion of the questionnaire will still be counted, Justice Department attorneys said in court documents.