After ‘Egregious’ Violation, Judge Orders Census To Count Through Oct. 31 For Now

A federal judge has issued an order to clarify that, for now, the U.S. Census Bureau must continue counting for the 2020 census through Oct. 31 after finding the bureau made multiple violations of an earlier order that extends the national head count’s schedule.

The latest ruling by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh — who issued the order late Thursday in California — comes after days of confusion sparked by a one-sentence tweet from the Census Bureau that Koh called “[perhaps] the most egregious violation” of the preliminary injunction order she issued last week.

The bureau released the tweet minutes before the judge began a virtual conference Monday for a lawsuit over the Trump administration’s push to cut the census short. It said that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the bureau, had announced Oct. 5 as a “target date” for ending all counting efforts.

Internal emails and other documents show that Ross chose that date to deliver the first set of census results, the latest state population counts, to President Trump by Dec. 31 — even though last week the judge issued an order that prohibits the administration from implementing Dec. 31 as a deadline.

Earlier this week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Trump administration’s request to set aside Koh’s preliminary injunction while it is on appeal.

In her new order, Koh spelled out that last week’s ruling suspended Sept. 30 as the bureau’s revised end date for counting until Trump officials “cure all the legal defects” specified in the previous order. That, in turn, required the agency to reinstate Oct. 31 as the end date it had previously announced in response to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Koh laid out more examples of the Trump administration’s “chaotic, dilatory, and incomplete compliance,” including failing to update the Census Bureau’s website after she issued her order last week and sending a text message to the bureau’s workers on Monday that said that door-knocking efforts “will finish on October 5.”

“Defendants’ dissemination of erroneous information; lurching from one hasty, unexplained plan to the next; and unlawful sacrifices of completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census are upending the status quo, violating the Injunction Order, and undermining the credibility of the Census Bureau and the 2020 Census,” Koh wrote in the new order. “This must stop.”

The judge has now ordered the bureau, which employs hundreds of thousands of workers for the national count, to send a text message to all of its employees on Friday that says the Oct. 5 date is “not operative” and that the agency will continue its data collection operations through the end of the month. The bureau’s director, Steven Dillingham, is also required to submit a sworn statement to the court by Oct. 5 that “unequivocally confirms” the administration is complying with the court’s order.

“The Court will subject Defendants to sanctions or contempt proceedings if Defendants violate the Injunction Order again,” Koh warned.

The Census Bureau, Commerce Department and Justice Department did not immediately respond to NPR’s requests for comment.

Attorneys for the coalition of challengers in the lawsuit, led by the National Urban League, had requested that a text message be sent to notify census workers of the court’s directives.

“We appreciate the Court’s swift action – we just want the government to follow the Court’s orders,” said Melissa Sherry, a partner at the law firm Latham & Watkins who has argued in court for the plaintiffs, in a statement.

Kristen Clarke — president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is also helping to represent the lawsuit’s plaintiffs — said that the judge’s latest order will “support efforts to achieve a full and fair count of the population, particularly in states that continue to face an undercount and are home to significant numbers of Blacks, Latinos and other communities of color.”

In Congress, Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee have asked the bureau to provide documents and a briefing by career officials on how the announcement of the Oct. 5 date has affected census operations.

“Today’s order reaffirms what bipartisan members of Congress have been stating: rushing the 2020 Census will result in an inaccurate and incomplete count,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who chairs the committee, said in a statement. “The Trump Administration should follow this court order and stop politicizing the 2020 Census.”

The administration is also trying to fend off a separate, Maryland-based lawsuit over its last-minute changes to the census schedule. Justice Department attorneys have told a three-judge panel hearing that case that the bureau needed to end counting on Sept. 30 to have enough time to process the results and meet the legal deadline of Dec. 31 for delivering results to the president — despite top career officials at the bureau publicly saying as early as May that the pandemic has made meeting that deadline no longer possible.

Koh called the administration’s announcement that counting would wrap on Oct. 5 a “blatant contradiction” of its earlier position, and the judges in Maryland have asked Justice Department attorneys to explain how the bureau would produce an accurate count at this point.

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