A federal trial began Tuesday for lawsuits challenging the Trump administration's addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, a plan that a different court blocked last week.
Former U.S. Census Bureau director John Thompson, the first plaintiffs' witness for the bench trial in Maryland, testified Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross disregarded "long established" Census Bureau protocols in adding the citizenship question. Thompson, who oversaw the bureau from 2013 through June 2017, said he doesn't think officials properly tested the question for the 2020 census.
"It's very problematic for me," Thompson said of Ross' decision.
The trial before U.S. District Judge George Hazel in Greenbelt, Maryland, began one week after a federal judge in New York barred the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the census for the first time since 1950. The Justice Department is appealing that ruling by U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman, who concluded Ross acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner before deciding to add the citizenship question.
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A trial for a separate suit over the same issue, filed by the state of California, began in San Francisco on Jan. 7. A judge finished hearing testimony in that case on Jan. 14 and is scheduled to hear closing arguments Feb. 15.
The plaintiffs for the case being tried in Maryland include residents of Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Florida. Attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund also sued on behalf of more than two dozen organizations and individuals. The court agreed to consolidate the claims in December.
In a court filing, plaintiffs' attorneys say Ross communicated with former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other administration officials before issuing the March 2018 directive "to further the unconstitutional goal of diluting the political power of non-white immigrant communities." The Census Bureau's own analysis shows the citizenship question would lead to a lower response rate to the 2020 census by households with at least one non-citizen member, the lawyer said.
"Consistent with numerous other statements and actions of President Trump and Trump Administration officials, these efforts were driven by racial animus against non-white immigrants," they wrote.
The Census Bureau began collecting citizenship data through the annual American Community Survey in 2005. Ross decided to use the same wording from that "well-tested question" on the ACS for the citizenship question on the 2020 census, government lawyers said in a court filing.
"Secretary Ross carefully considered, but was ultimately unpersuaded by, concerns that including a citizenship question would reduce the self-response rate for non-citizens," they wrote.
Plaintiffs' attorneys had urged Judge Hazel to proceed with the Maryland trial as scheduled since the judge's ruling in the New York case could be reversed on appeal. The clock is ticking for all of the cases: The Census Bureau has said the "drop-dead" date for changes to the 2020 census questionnaire is June 30, 2019, according to the plaintiffs' lawyers.
Denise Hulett, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the Los Angeles-based group's lawsuit is the only one to allege that the citizenship question on the 2020 census is a "product of a conspiracy that began in the early days of the Trump administration."
"It allows us to talk about the motives of a large group of people instead of the motives of just Secretary Ross," she said during a break in the trial.