October 3, 2018 / 5:55 PM / 6 months ago

U.S. Census Bureau nominee says courts should decide citizenship question

(Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Census Bureau, Steven Dillingham, said on Wednesday he believed courts should have the final say on whether the census can ask if respondents are U.S. citizens, acknowledging that the question could affect participation.

Lawmakers asked Dillingham for his views on asking about citizenship status on the 2020 census at a confirmation hearing held by the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire told Dillingham the citizenship question could have a “real chilling effect” on participation in the mandatory, once-a-decade count of the U.S. population, which is used to apportion congressional seats and determine federal funding.

“The Census Bureau has had its best and brightest look at this. They have identified the possibility that there could be changes in the responses,” Dillingham testified.

But, he said, it would not be appropriate for him to take a public position for or against.

He said the courts would ultimately decide whether the citizenship question is included and that he would administer the census “in accordance and consistent with that judicial decision.”

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced in March that the next census would ask citizenship status for the first time since 1950, explaining that it would help provide more complete and accurate data on voting rights. [nL1N1R904F]

But several U.S. states with Democratic attorneys general have filed lawsuits seeking to get the question removed, saying it was a politically-driven effort to discourage immigrants from participating in the census. [nL1N1UM0ZH]

Kamala Harris, a Democratic senator from California, asked Dillingham what he would do if a “political appointee at the Commerce Department or the White House” asked him to redesign a bureau questionnaire in a way that countered the advice of professional staff.

“It sounded as though you’re talking about political interference coming from another level that would improperly affect the scientific process,” Dillingham replied. “I would have to carefully consider who is asking the question or making the request and for what purpose and push back.”

Committee members did not say when they would send Dillingham’s nomination to the full U.S. Senate for a confirmation vote.

Reporting by Jan Wolfe, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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