California v. Trump: Trial Over Census Citizenship Question Gets Started

(Bloomberg) -- California’s challenge of a citizenship question the Trump administration is adding to the 2020 census started in San Francisco, following a similar trial in New York.

Lawyers for cities including Los Angeles and San Jose argue that the question -- “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” -- will cause an undercount in the nation’s most populous state, result in lost federal funds for schools, roads and public transportation, and possibly cost the state at least one congressional seat.

Testimony and Arguments

  • California called its first witness, University of Chicago Professor Colm O’Muircheartaigh, to help show that the question will suppress participation among its relatively higher immigrant and Hispanic population. “It’s absolutely critical that you know where the population is distributed across the country,” he told U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg.
  • The U.S. argues that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department houses the Census Bureau, has the power to decide what goes on the census. The government says the question was added to help enforce laws against discriminatory voting practices after the Justice Department said in a 2017 letter that the information was central to that effort.

Key Insights

  • The ultimate decision may be up to the Supreme Court, as U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in New York prepares to issue a ruling on a similar challenge by a coalition of states that argue the question could scare noncitizens and people who live with noncitizens away from responding. The high court agreed to hear arguments in February on the administration’s bid to limit the evidence that can be used in the New York case.
  • One important issue will be Ross’s intent. Plaintiffs in the case before Furman point to the commerce secretary’s interactions with President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration associates and aides after the 2016 election. They say Trump officials later cooked up the claim about the Voting Rights Act to make a discriminatory policy seem legitimate.
  • The outcome of the trials could help rewrite the nation’s political map for a decade or more, since census results are used to apportion U.S. congressional seats and divvy up the Electoral College votes that determine the winners of presidential elections. The data are also used to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars a year in federal aid to states and localities.

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

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