July 9, 2019 / 6:25 PM / 10 days ago

Judge's order on government lawyer shake-up adds hurdle for Trump in U.S. Census dispute

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A judge in New York on Tuesday denied the U.S. Department of Justice’s request to shake up the legal team that was handling cases on the 2020 Census, adding another hurdle to the Trump administration’s bid to put a contentious citizenship question on the survey.

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: An informational pamphlet is displayed at an event for community activists and local government leaders to mark the one-year-out launch of the 2020 Census efforts in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo/File Photo

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman said in a court order the 11th-hour request to change lawyers handling the case is “patently deficient” and provides no “satisfactory reasons.”

The department attempted to change the team of lawyers after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 27 against the first attempt by President Donald Trump's administration to add the citizenship question, calling the rationale "contrived." (here)

But the Supreme Court left open the possibility that the question could be added if the government provided a different rationale.

The Justice Department filed court papers on Monday announcing the new lawyers, but attorneys for New York and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) contested the substitutions.

“Defendants provide no reasons, let alone ‘satisfactory reasons,’ for the substitution of counsel,” Furman wrote in his order.

The judge added that the Justice Department has looming deadlines to respond to motions that plaintiffs have filed, including a request to prohibit the administration from modifying the census to add the question.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the judge’s order.

The printing of the decennial population survey is already underway. In January, the government awarded R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company, a $114 million contract, including printing more than 600 million documents to be mailed to more than 130 million households.

An ACLU official said in response to Furman’s order that the department “owes the public and the courts an explanation for its unprecedented substitution of the entire legal team.”

“The Trump administration is acting like it has something to hide, and we won’t rest until we know the truth,” ACLU Voting Rights Project Director Dale Ho said in a statement.

The judge said the department may petition the court again to swap lawyers, but each request must be accompanied by a “signed and sworn affidavit” explaining the rationale.

The Supreme Court ruled after states and civil rights groups fought the Trump administration for trying to add the question, saying it was a Republican ploy to scare immigrants into not participating and leading to a population undercount in heavily Democratic areas.

Trump and his supporters say it makes sense to know how many non-citizens are living in the United States. The Republican’s hard line policies on immigration have punctuated his presidency and 2020 re-election campaign.

After the June 27 ruling, it appeared as though the administration was conceding defeat, with Justice Department lawyers saying the census would be printed without the question.

But the very next day, Trump appeared to contradict them on Twitter, saying he was still moving forward to try and include it.

Shortly after that, the Justice Department said it was still searching for a legal a path forward to include it.

To date, the Justice Department has not offered details on what that may entail.

Trump has said he was considering an executive order (here) to add the question. The U.S. Constitution specifically assigns the job of overseeing the census to Congress, limiting the authority of the president over it.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who was appointed by Trump, told reporters while in South Carolina on Monday that “over the next day or two, you’ll see what approach we’re taking and I think it does provide a pathway for getting the question on the census.”

Meanwhile on Tuesday, a U.S. House Democrat who oversees funding for the U.S. Census Bureau said he would not support money being spent to reprint forms if the Trump administration won court approval to include the citizenship question.

“Amending the form could potentially cost hundreds of millions of additional taxpayer dollars,” Representative José Serrano, who chairs the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement.

Serrano said he has “no intention of allowing this flagrant waste of money,” urging Trump to give up his fight to add a question about citizenship.

The U.S. Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department, which did not immediately comment on Serrano’s statement.

Reporting by David Shepardson, Makini Brice and Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; Additional reporting by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York; editing by Grant McCool

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