Judge is asked to punish officials over tactics in census question dispute

WASHINGTON — Critics who sued to block the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census asked a federal judge Tuesday to punish administration officials, saying the officials had deliberately delayed the lawsuit in order to hide damning evidence — conduct they called “nothing less than a fraud on the court.”

Judge is asked to punish officials over tactics in census question dispute

In a motion filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, the plaintiffs charged that the conduct raised “serious questions” about the role that senior Justice Department officials played in assisting that strategy.

The plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of state and local governments, carried the battle against the citizenship question to the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor June 27. Their filing Tuesday said the administration’s stated rationale for the question — that data from it would help enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act — was a cover story backed by an incomplete and inaccurate document trail that the Commerce Department “took great pains to curate.”

The filing suggests that senior Commerce Department officials failed to give the plaintiffs documents that would have pointed to what they said was the real reason for adding the question: to give the Republican Party a partisan advantage when population figures from the 2020 census are used to draw new political boundaries in 2021.

Some of the charges are based on new evidence about deliberations over the citizenship question that were unearthed in congressional hearings this spring. But the filing also cites a 2015 study by a Republican Party redistricting strategist, Thomas B. Hofeller, now deceased, which outlined ways to boost Republican political fortunes by excluding noncitizens and persons under voting age from the population figures used for redistricting.

The study said the strategy could be executed only if the next census yielded data on where noncitizens lived. Hofeller was the first to urge President Donald Trump’s transition team to add the question to the census.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the plaintiffs’ claims. The Commerce Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The filings took particular aim at two officials, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Gore and Mark Neuman, a longtime friend of Hofeller’s who was an unpaid adviser to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on the citizenship question and other matters.

The Commerce Department’s statements in court that Neuman “played no meaningful role” in discussions about the citizenship question were false, the filing claimed, adding that Neuman “lied during his deposition on multiple occasions.” In fact, the plaintiffs said, Neuman was deeply involved in the issue and delivered a draft letter to Gore outlining the Justice Department’s need for data to enforce voting rights.

That letter contained a paragraph supporting that rationale that was found verbatim in Hofeller’s files. Neuman has strongly denied that he committed any misconduct in his work with the Commerce Department.

The filing also asserts that in a deposition, Gore wrongly claimed to have written the first draft of the voting rights rationale that in fact Neuman had delivered to him and that Gore failed to disclose Neuman’s involvement in writing it.

The plaintiffs’ filing asked the court to reopen discovery in the lawsuit to allow them to determine what evidence may have been improperly withheld.

The plaintiffs said sanctions were especially important given the stature of the officials they claimed had acted wrongly. “The misconduct appears to have been perpetrated by senior Commerce and DOJ officials,” they said, referring to the Justice Department.

“It is of the utmost importance that senior government officials be held to the highest ethical standards,” they added.

The request for sanctions Tuesday came almost two weeks after lawyers for the ACLU and other plaintiffs accused the Trump administration of “deceiving the judiciary and the public” by falsely claiming that the 2020 census would be delayed if litigation over the citizenship question were not settled by June 30.

The Justice Department abandoned that claim early this month after Trump insisted that the search for a way to include the citizenship question on the census would continue, perhaps delaying the census. By then, the plaintiffs had already truncated their search for evidence and the Supreme Court had taken the case directly, skipping the normal appeals process, on the assumption that the June 30 deadline was firm.

Days later, the Justice Department announced without explanation that its entire legal team in the citizenship dispute was being replaced. People with knowledge of that action later said the lawyers had resigned the case, in part because of Trump’s statements on Twitter.

Judge Jesse M. Furman of U.S. District Court issued an order Tuesday permanently barring the Trump administration from asking respondents to the 2020 census about their citizenship status, whether through a written question or by some other means. That order also prohibited the administration from further delaying printing of 2020 census questionnaires to add a citizenship question.

The New York attorney general, Letitia James, whose office leads a coalition of plaintiffs in the suit in New York, had sought the injunction after Trump announced last week that he was abandoning efforts to add the question to the census. The Justice Department did not oppose the order.

“This motion will ensure that the Trump administration is held to its words,” James said in a statement. “It’s time to put this nightmare to bed.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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