A federal judge said Wednesday that he's inclined to reexamine whether a proposed 2020 census citizenship question violates the rights of minorities after reviewing newly discovered documents from a deceased political operative.
U.S. District Judge George Hazel of Maryland ruled that plaintiffs have produced enough evidence to warrant reopening the case, even though he already has ruled in their favor on other grounds. His ability to consider altering his ruling based on the new evidence would depend on a federal appeals court returning it to him.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether the citizenship question should be included. It is unclear whether Hazel's order might affect the high court case.
Voting rights activists argue newly discovered emails between the late GOP mapmaker Thomas Hofeller and a current Census Bureau official show the citizenship question was intended to discriminate.
Hazel's brief ruling Wednesday, only several paragraphs long, said he concluded that the new evidence "raises a substantial issue" and granted a motion by the plaintiffs for another look at the equal protection issue. It wasn't clear when he would issue a longer opinion explaining his reasoning.
The Justice Department declined comment through a spokeswoman Wednesday, but has previously denied that the new documents show discriminatory intent.
The Commerce Department issued a statement Wednesday that it "strenuously" disagrees with the ruling and called the plaintiffs' use of the Hofeller documents "a transparent ploy to derail the Supreme Court's consideration of this case at the last possible minute."
Hazel had ruled in April to block the addition of the citizenship question, but found at the time that the voting rights activists failed to prove their equal protection rights were violated.
But the plaintiffs went back to court this month citing a new trove of Hofeller documents, first revealed in late May as part of a New York case. They said the documents showed that Hofeller played a role in drafting Justice Department documents regarding the citizenship question, and that Hofeller had explained in a separate memo that the addition would help "Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites."
The documents were discovered when his estranged daughter found four external computer hard drives and 18 thumb drives in her father's Raleigh, North Carolina, home after his death last summer.
Challengers to the citizenship question also have cited the documents in New York federal court and at the Supreme Court in their effort to keep the question off the 2020 census.
Further review of the documents last week uncovered a January 2015 email exchange between Hofeller and a current census official discussing the issue of citizenship in regards to the census, according to filings before Hazel.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering the citizenship question after Hazel's ruling and similar ones by judges in New York and California who concluded the question was improperly added to the U.S. census for what would be the first time since 1950. The high court could rule by July.
Voting rights groups have argued that the citizenship question would serve to strengthen GOP congressional representation and funding for areas where mostly Republicans reside by suppressing the count of immigrants. States with large numbers of immigrants tend to vote Democratic.
The apportionment of congressional seats is based on a count of the total U.S. population, including non-citizens, according to the Census Bureau .
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.