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Federal judge strikes down effort to add citizenship question to Census

A federal judge in New York has struck down the Trump administration’s proposal to reintroduce a citizenship question into the 2020 census.

The ruling effectively puts a freeze on a deeply contentious move that critics said would discourage non-citizens from participating in the Census. The Justice Department has said it needed better data on the voting age population to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Judge Jesse Furman said Tuesday morning that the proposal is “unlawful,” writing that “(Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’) decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census — even if it did not violate the Constitution itself — was unlawful for a multitude of independent reasons and must be set aside.”

The Justice Department asked officials to add the citizenship question, saying it needed better data on the voting age population to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. Supporters say this is a common-sense question that simply makes sense to ask.

The administration is likely to appeal the ruling. The Supreme Court has already agreed to hear a portion of the case, saying it will review whether the challengers can introduce evidence outside of the official record, including the testimony of a senior Justice Department official. The court will hear those arguments next month.

“Today’s 277-page ruling is a major loss for the Trump administration, but also not the last word on the matter,” University of Texas School of Law professor and CNN contributor Stephen Vladeck said. “The Supreme Court is already scheduled to hear an appeal related to the pre-trial proceedings in this case in February, and the government will certainly appeal this decision to the federal appeals court in New York and, if necessary, the justices. That said, today’s ruling means that, for now, at least, there won’t be a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.”

The case was a challenge to Ross’ decision to add the citizenship question brought by the state of New York. At least two other cases, one in California and another in Maryland, challenging the citizenship question are underway.

At the heart of the case is how the reintroduction of the citizenship question to the 2020 census will affect the data the government gathers. The Census is a crucial document for determining how federal funds are allocated and how congressional districts are drawn for the following 10-year period. It is meant to account for everyone living in the United States, not just US citizens. The citizenship question has not been asked of all recipients since 1950.

“Our government is legally entitled to include a citizenship question on the census and people in the United States have a legal obligation to answer. Reinstating the citizenship question ultimately protects the right to vote and helps ensure free and fair elections for all Americans,” Kelly Laco, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said in a statement after Tuesday’s ruling.

But Dale Ho, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, called the ruling a “forceful rebuke of the Trump administration’s attempt to weaponize the census for an attack on immigrant communities.

“The evidence at trial, including from the government’s own witness, exposed how adding a citizenship question would wreck the once-in-a-decade count of the nation’s population,” Ho said. “The inevitable result would have been — and the administration’s clear intent was — to strip federal resources and political representation from those needing it most.”

-Elizabeth Hartfield and Gregory Wallace reporting for CNN

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