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Second Judge Blocks Trump Administration's Census Citizenship Question Plans

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, with President Trump at the White House in 2018,  approved adding to the 2020 census a question asking, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"
Andrew Harrer
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, with President Trump at the White House in 2018, approved adding to the 2020 census a question asking, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"

Updated 7:53 p.m. ET

A second federal judge has issued a court order to block the Trump administration's plans to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg of California found that the administration's decision to add the question violated administrative law.

The judge also ruled that it was unconstitutional because it prevents the government from carrying out its mandate to count every person living in the U.S. every 10 years.

"In short, the inclusion of the citizenship question on the 2020 Census threatens the very foundation of our democratic system — and does so based on a self-defeating rationale," Seeborg wrote in a 126-page opinion released Wednesday.

Plans to add the question have already been halted by an earlier ruling in New York by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hold a hearing about the New York ruling on April 23. This latest ruling will likely be appealed to the high court.

The controversial question asks, " Is this person a citizen of the United States?"

The administration argues that the Justice Department wants responses to the question to better enforce Voting Rights Act provisions that protect racial and language minorities against discrimination. In his ruling against including the question, however, Furman found that to be a " sham justification."

Census Bureau officials have recommended against adding the question, which the federal agency's research suggests will scare noncitizens and some citizens from participating in the constitutionally mandated head count of every person living in the United States.

The dozens of states, cities and other groups that have sued the administration over the question are concerned that it will lead to an undercount of Latinos and other communities of color. That would harm the accuracy of new population counts that play a role in determining how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes, as well as how much federal funding, each state receives after the 2020 census.

In an email from spokesperson Kelly Laco, the Justice Department — which is representing the administration in these cases — declined to comment on Seeborg's ruling.

Attorneys for the state of California and the city of San José — plus the other cities and groups that joined these two lead plaintiffs in the San Francisco-based lawsuits — hailed the judge's order to block the question.

"Justice has prevailed for each and every Californian who should raise their hands to be counted in the 2020 Census without being discouraged by a citizenship question," said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office filed the first lawsuit hours after Ross announced his decision to add the question last March.

"The plaintiffs have proved that the justification given for the addition of the citizenship question was nothing more than a pretext to carry out the Trump Administration's racist agenda," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Her organization represented San José and Black Alliance For Just Immigration, a California-based immigrant-rights group.

The legal battle at the district courts, however, is not over yet. Plaintiffs in two additional citizenship question lawsuits in Maryland are waiting for a ruling by U.S. District Judge George Hazel, who heard closing arguments last month.

The judge is considering claims that by adding the question, the Trump administration intended to discriminate against immigrant communities of color and that it was part of a conspiracy within the administration to violate the constitutional rights of people of color and noncitizens.

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.