Citizen Question on Census Threatens Democracy, California Judge Rules

(Bloomberg) -- A second federal judge rejected the Trump administration’s decision to ask people about their citizenship on the 2020 census, saying it “threatens the very foundation of our democratic system.”

The ruling, by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco, is similar to a recent decision by Jesse Furman in New York, who also concluded that adding the query -- “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” -- to the decennial questionnaire would violate federal law.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the administration’s expedited appeal of the New York ruling on April 23. If Seeborg’s decision follows the same short path to the high court, it would add an argument against putting the question on the form. The Census Bureau has said it needs to start printing questionnaires by June.

Furman ruled that the addition of the question violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs changes to agency regulations. Seeborg agreed with that argument, as well as another -- that the question violates the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause, a requirement to count the population.

That violation requires “a more expansive injunction,” Seeborg wrote in a 126-page opinion that bars the question whether or not it complies with the Administrative Procedure Act.

“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.

Justice Department spokesperson Kelly Laco declined to comment on the ruling. The U.S. argues it’s just trying to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and that the addition of the question is well within its constitutional authority.

The litigation, which also includes a pending case in Maryland, could help rewrite the nation’s political map for a decade. In addition to guiding the distribution of federal funds, the results of the census are used to apportion seats in Congress and divvy up the Electoral College votes that pick the president. The plaintiffs claim the administration’s real goal with the citizenship question is to dilute the economic and political power of immigrants and noncitizens by scaring them away from the process.

The California trial produced compelling evidence that adding the citizenship question poses “a significant risk” of distorting congressional representation, Seeborg wrote.

Even the Commerce Department, which includes the Census Bureau, says the question could result in undercounting the state’s noncitizen population by 5.8 percent, and has prepared methods intended to mitigate the shortfall.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra celebrated the ruling, saying in a statement, “We will ardently defend this important judgment to safeguard fairness in funding and representation for California and its local communities.’’

The state argues that the question could cost Californians dearly in lost federal spending guided by census data. It got about $115 billion of $883 billion in such spending in fiscal 2016, and warns it is set to lose more than any other state, because California is home to the greatest number of immigrants and Hispanics in the U.S.

San Jose is one of a number of California cities also suing to block the question. John Libby, a partner with Manatt representing the city, called the ruling “another step in the fight against this administration’s anti-immigrant agenda” and said he looks forward to defending it, “including in the Supreme Court.”

The case is State of California v. Ross, 3:18-cv-1865-RS, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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