A judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled Tuesday that the Trump administration’s plan to include a question asking the citizenship of respondents on the 2020 census exceeded the authority of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
The case is the first of six separate cases challenging the legality of the planned “citizenship question” to be decided. The census is required by the US Constitution to be performed every 10 years to determine the apportionment of congressional representatives in the federal government. The census is performed by the US Census Bureau, a federal agency under the control of the Department of Commerce, and the exact procedure for conducting it falls to the Secretary of Commerce to determine.
In the opinion, Judge Jesse Furman described the process by which Ross decided to include the citizenship question as flawed and found it had “violated public trust” in the census process. Furman conceded that “the Constitution, the Census Act, and the APA allow the Secretary of Commerce broad discretion over the design and administration of the decennial census” but that Ross’s actions must be “be reasonable and reasonably explained” and must comply with federal rules and procedures.
In particular, Furman focused on Ross’ decision through the lens of the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), a federal law that sets the procedures for executive agencies to follow when promulgating rules and regulations. The Act requires that the Secretary “study relevant evidence and come to a conclusion supported by it, comply with procedures and laws and explain the facts and reasons for the decision” and to publicly disclose this reasoning. Even though citizenship questions were included on the census through 1950 and did not run afoul of the Constitution, Furman stated that Ross neglected to follow proper APA procedures when he decided to re-implement the citizenship question. “Measured against these standards, Secretary Ross’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census—even if it did not violate the Constitution itself—was unlawful for a multitude of independent reasons and must be set aside,” the judge stated in his decision. Furman issued an injunction against Ross, prohibiting the citizenship question from appearing on the 2020 census forms.
The American Civil Liberties Union/a> cheered the result, saying that the ruling represented “a forceful rebuke of the Trump administration’s attempt to weaponize the census for an attack on immigrant communities.” However, it is expected that the ruling will face further appeals. The Supreme Court has already ruled on procedural grounds that Ross could not be deposed under oath in the case, and the other pending cases against the administration are expected to proceed to trial in other jurisdictions beginning in February.