Trial Over 2020 Census Citizenship Question Begins in California

January 7, 2019 Updated: January 7, 2019

A federal court trial began on Jan. 7 in San Francisco, California, against the Trump administration’s decision to reinstate a citizenship question into the 2020 Census.

The trial, comprising of two related cases, challenges the department’s decision to re-insert a question that asks people to provide their citizenship status. This question was last asked in 1950.

The lawsuits, brought by California and a number of cities, argue that the citizenship question is unconstitutional and that the decision to reinstate it was an “arbitrary and capricious” action by the Commerce Department, one of the defendants in the suit along with the department’s secretary, Wilbur Ross, and the Census Bureau. The plaintiffs say the question is unconstitutional because it would discourage immigrants and Latinos from participating in the nationwide survey, therefore violating the Constitutional requirement that everyone in the United States, including non-citizens, should be included in the Census.

Moreover, the plaintiffs claim the undercount would subsequently jeopardize the state’s representation in the Congress and threaten their funding, according to court documents.

The plaintiffs have asked the court to stop the question from being asked in the upcoming Census and plans to bring in a number of academics to support their claim.

“This week we’ll bring in witnesses who will demonstrate just how critical an accurate 2020 Census count is for our state and people,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice (DOJ) argues Census officials take steps to guard against an undercount, including making in-person follow-up visits, so the final numbers will be accurate. Households that skip the citizenship question but otherwise fill out a substantial portion of the questionnaire will still be counted, DOJ attorneys said in court documents.

The Commerce Department said the purpose of the question is “to provide census block level citizenship voting age population data that is not currently available from government surveys.” This data will help the DOJ to improve enforcement of a 1965 law meant to protect minority voting rights.

The DOJ plans to rely on its expert, Stuart Gurrea, to argue that the citizenship question would cause no change in apportioning congressional seats in any state and only a negligible dip in the distribution of federal funds to California.

Multi-State Lawsuits

The DOJ asked the Census Bureau in December 2017 to reinstate the citizenship question, and it was done so in March last year. Court documents show that Ross had reviewed several options to provide the citizen voting age population data to the DOJ and concluded the Census would provide the “most complete and accurate data.”

Ross also said the citizenship question has been well-tested, as it has been included in the American Community Survey—an annual survey of a sample population—since 2005.

After the announcement, several state governments and interest groups across multiple states, including New York, Maryland, and California, filed lawsuits against the Trump administration. The DOJ tried to get the cases tossed out, but their efforts have been rejected by multiple judges in several states—including California.

One of the trials in New York ended in November last year and the judge is expected to make a ruling soon.

The Constitution requires the Census to be collected every 10 years. This information helps determine how many seats a state holds in the Congress based on their respective populations. The federal government also relies on this data to determine how to distribute billions of dollars in funding each year like Medicaid, Medicare Part B, and the Highway Planning and Construction Program. The United States previously collected people’s citizenship status from 1820 to 1950.

Judge Richard Seeborg, who is presiding over the California trial, will have to decide whether to allow the question. He will be hearing testimony from both sides until early next week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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