Census Bureau Sued Over 'Intrusive' Annual Survey Questions

Citizens argue federal law doesn't allow government to punish people for refusing to answer 100-question American Community Survey

Census Bureau Sued Over 'Intrusive' Annual Survey Questions
The U.S. Census logo appears on census materials received in the mail with an invitation to fill out census information online in San Anselmo, Calif., on March 19, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

Two U.S. citizens have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Census Bureau, claiming the long, detailed American Community Survey the agency requires millions to complete each year is illegal.

The lawsuit comes as the U.S. Census Bureau comes under fire for significant miscounts in the 2020 census, with population numbers in six states being undercounted, while eight states saw an overcount in population. Republicans say the botched census count unfairly prevented Florida and Texas from each gaining a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
President Donald Trump tried to prevent the counting of illegal aliens so they wouldn’t have an effect on the apportionment of political power among the states. The Supreme Court sided with him on Dec. 28, 2020, allowing the Trump administration to attempt to carry out its policy as the deadline for census figures was approaching. But on the day he was inaugurated, President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 13986, which reversed the Trump policy.
The 22-page legal complaint (pdf) in the new case, Murphy v. Raimondo, 3:22-cv-5377, was filed on May 24 in Tacoma in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge David G. Estudillo, who was appointed in September of last year by Biden.

The plaintiffs are U.S. citizens Maureen Murphy and John Huddleston. Murphy lives in Gig Harbor, Washington; Huddleston resides in Susanville, California.

The defendants are U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and Director of the Bureau of the Census Robert Santos. Both are being sued in their official capacities. The U.S. Department of Commerce and the Bureau also are named as defendants.

Murphy and Huddleston don't object to the normal census carried out nationwide every 10 years, which is fairly simple and designed to count people for congressional redistricting; they object to the much more detailed American Community Survey (ACS), which gathers information they say isn't necessary for the census.

The enumeration clause in the U.S. Constitution states that an “Enumeration shall be made” every 10 years “in such Manner” as Congress “shall by Law direct.” Congress authorized the Census to be carried out in Title 13 of the United States Code.

The Census Bureau’s website states that it's against the law to disclose or publish any private information that identifies an individual or business and that the personal information collected “cannot be used against respondents by any government agency or court.” Bureau employees are “sworn for life” to protect the information gathered. Violating the law can lead to as many as five years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, or both.

Unlike the once-a-decade census, the ACS is conducted every year and “asks detailed and personal questions such as the person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, fertility history, marital status, and divorce history,” according to the legal complaint.

Other questions posed in the survey concern whether the household has internet access, how many cars the inhabitants own, whether the occupants receive food stamps, how many and which languages the occupants speak, and “details of the occupants’ physical, mental, or emotional conditions such as deafness or blindness, and any difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions, walking or climbing, dressing or bathing, or running errands.”

The ACS queries respondents about private health information, including whether the occupants have health insurance, and the effect of medical and psychological conditions on the individual’s daily activities. It also asks how much households pay in taxes and for utilities. “It even asks how many beds, cars, and washing machines the household has ... [and] contains about 100 such questions.”

Unlike the 10-year census, which everyone has to answer, the Census Bureau chooses a sample of a few million households each year to answer the ACS. Individuals who decline to answer this detailed questionnaire face fines of up to $5,000 per question, the complaint states.

Murphy and Huddleston were selected to complete the ACS.

“They understand the importance of the decennial Census. They have in the past and will continue in the future to answer the ten-year Census. But they oppose the highly detailed and personal information demanded in the American Community Survey and have refused to answer it,” the complaint reads.

“As a result, they are subject to monetary fines for doing nothing more than keeping the private details of their lives private.”

Murphy and Huddleston argue that the Census Bureau doesn't have the statutory or constitutional authority to compel them to answer the “detailed, intrusive questions” of the ACS, the complaint states.

“The Census Bureau does not have the authority to compel Americans to divulge any information it sees fit, beyond what’s needed for the 10-year census,” said attorney Adi Dynar of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a national public interest law firm headquartered in Sacramento, California, that is representing the plaintiffs.

“Congress has not authorized the Census Bureau to impose criminal penalties and fines for refusing to answer their intrusive, deeply personal questions,” Dynar said in a statement.

Officials at the Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau didn't respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.