U.S. judge dismisses lawsuit seeking to avert 2020 census undercount

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge in Manhattan has dismissed a lawsuit accusing the Trump administration of depriving the U.S. Census Bureau of funding needed to avert an undercount of racial and ethnic minorities in the 2020 census.

FILE PHOTO: Census 2020 merchandise is seen on an information desk at an event where U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) spoke at a Census Town Hall at the Louis Armstrong Middle School in Queens, New York City, U.S., February 22, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

At a Wednesday hearing, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein also refused to issue an injunction requiring the bureau to spend $770 million left over from prior appropriations to deploy more census-takers who visit homes, boost community outreach, and open more field offices and assistance centers.

The plaintiffs, Brooklyn-based nonprofit Center for Popular Democracy Action and the city of Newburgh, New York, had argued that federal cost-cutting threatened undercounts of blacks, Hispanics, immigrants and the homeless.

In response, the government called the plaintiffs’ claims too speculative, and said the U.S. Constitution did not require additional spending.

Census data are used to award billions of dollars of federal funds and determine political representation.

Critics of undercounting believe many people in “hard-to-count” communities are more likely to vote for Democrats.

The lawsuit was filed last Nov. 26, before the coronavirus pandemic became a threat to the accuracy of the census, which the Constitution requires every 10 years.

On Wednesday, the Census Bureau suspended field operations through April 1.

The plaintiffs were represented by several lawyers, and by students from Yale Law School’s Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic.

Nikita Lalwani, one of the students, said the plaintiffs were disappointed with the decision and have not decided whether to appeal.

But she also said they were pleased the Census Bureau had announced some changes in the direction they sought, including hiring more census-takers and spending more on communications.

“Investing resources in counting hard-to-count communities is all the more important now, as COVID-19 heightens the risk of undercounting vulnerable populations,” Lalwani said.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan, whose office represented the Census Bureau, declined to comment.

On Dec. 19, a federal appeals court revived part of a similar census lawsuit brought in Maryland by the NAACP.

The case is Center for Popular Democracy Action et al v Bureau of the Census et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 19-10917.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum