US judge halts winding down of 2020 count by Census Bureau

Jurisdictions and rights groups accuse the Trump administration of expediting the process to undercount some groups.

Census Bureau
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the once-decade-count into turmoil [File: LM Otero/AP Photo]

The US Census Bureau must suspend winding down operations, which it has done to expedite the 2020 count of US residents, according to a federal judge’s order. 

US District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose late on Saturday issued a temporary restraining order against the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department, which oversees the agency. The order stops the Census Bureau from winding down operations until a court hearing is held on September 17.

The Trump administration’s expedited plan aimed to end the once-a-decade headcount of every US resident by the end of September, after the initial timeline was thrown into chaos amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

However, a coalition of cities, counties and civil rights groups have charged that ending the count early would risk officials overlooking minority communities in the census, leading to an inaccurate count.

They say that could be harmful to some communities, as the final census count helps determine how $1.5 trillion in federal funding is distributed and how many congressional seats each state gets in a process known as apportionment.

The parties have demanded the Census Bureau restore a previous plan for finishing the census at the end of October. That date had already been pushed back from the end of July in light of the coronavirus. 

However, the final numbers from the census are legally required to be submitted by December. While the Census Bureau asked Congress for that deadline to be pushed back to next spring, the Republican-controlled Senate has not taken up the request.

The lawsuit further contends the Census Bureau changed the schedule to accommodate a directive by Trump to exclude undocumented residents of the country from the numbers used in redrawing congressional districts.

‘Attempted short-circuiting’

More than a half dozen other lawsuits have been filed in tandem across the country, challenging Trump’s memorandum as unconstitutional and an attempt to limit the power of Hispanics and immigrants of colour during the important apportionment of congressional seats and funding

“The court rightfully recognised the Trump administration’s attempted short-circuiting of our nation’s census as an imminent threat to the completion of a fair and accurate process,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups that brought the San Jose lawsuit, told The Associated Press news agency. 

In her order, Koh wrote that previous court cases had concluded that it is in the public interest that Congress be fairly apportioned and that the federal funds be distributed using an accurate census.

“Thus, the balance of the hardships and public interest tip sharply in Plaintiffs’ favour,” Koh said.

In a message emailed to regional offices and headquarters late on Saturday, the Census Bureau said the statistical agency and the Commerce Department “are obligated to comply with the Court’s Order and are taking immediate steps to do so”. Further guidance would be provided later, the bureau said.

However, a top Census Bureau official said in court papers filed late on Friday that the bureau would not be able to meet its deadline to turn in apportionment numbers at the end of December if the headcount were extended an extra month. 

Associate director Al Fontenot said it would be difficult to bring back census takers who had been laid off if the bureau was forced to go back to the plan that has the headcount ending in October, and that the current crop of census takers had been much more efficient than in past decades, allowing the count to end on the faster timetable.

As of Saturday, more than 86 percent of households have been counted. More than 65 percent of households were counted from self-responses online, by mail or by telephone, and 21 percent of households were counted by census takers who went to households that had not yet answered the questionnaire.

Source: News Agencies