Court Order Keeps Census In Limbo As Counting End Date Looms

Sep 17, 2020
Originally published on September 21, 2020 6:27 am

The winding down of the 2020 census must remain on hold nationwide through Sept. 24 at the latest, a federal judge in California has ordered.

The move by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh throws the national head count further into uncertainty as a coalition led by the National Urban League continues a legal fight to provide the U.S. Census Bureau with more time to tally the country's population and review results, which are used to determine the distribution of federal funding and political representation for the next decade.

The challengers are pushing for an extended census schedule that the Trump administration first proposed because of disruptions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Career officials at the bureau have warned that they need more time to avoid risking serious errors in the count that cannot be fixed under a curtailed timeline.

In April, President Trump publicly supported the administration's request for Congress to pass four-month extensions to the legal deadlines for reporting census results.

But the administration made a last-minute decision in July to speed up counting to end by Sept. 30 and deliver the first set of numbers to Trump, as required by current federal law, by the end of this year.

This month, the administration was put under a temporary restraining order issued by Koh, who has directed the bureau to pause its plans to wrap up census operations for now. That order was set to expire Thursday when a hearing on the challengers' request to force counting to continue through Oct. 31 was scheduled to take place.

But that hearing was canceled after Justice Department attorneys missed a deadline for producing a complete record of internal Commerce Department documents for the lawsuit. The attorneys also told Koh the administration would likely not be able to finish filing other required documents this week.

"Defendants' failure to comply with the Court's Order is unacceptable," Koh wrote in a court order issued late Tuesday in the Northern District of California.

The judge has now ordered the administration to file documents by Friday ahead of a rescheduled hearing that's expected to be held on Sept. 22.

"I understand the urgency of the ruling and the gravity of the situation here," Koh emphasized Tuesday during a court conference, adding that she will do her "utmost to get a ruling out as soon as possible" after the hearing.

Meanwhile, a similar federal lawsuit based in Maryland is gaining steam as plaintiffs' attorneys with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC prepare for a Monday hearing on their request to extend the census schedule.

Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are also working to try to adjust the census schedule in what could be the final days of counting. This week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced last-minute legislation with deadline extensions that they hope can be passed by the end of this month.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A new court order is keeping the 2020 U.S. census in limbo. The Trump administration has been planning to stop counting the country's residents at the end of this month. But a federal judge in California has extended a pause to stop the plans. Confused? NPR's Hansi Lo Wang will explain.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh issued the order because the Trump administration missed a deadline. It was supposed to turn over a complete set of internal emails and memos earlier this week for a lawsuit over its last-minute decision to end census counting a month early. The judge is now preparing to rule as early as Tuesday on whether to force the administration to keep counting for another month, just as it had first proposed because of the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL FONTENOT: Of course, our goal is to know enumerate 100% of the housing units in the country.

WANG: Al Fontenot, the Census Bureau's associate director for the 2020 count, gave an update by phone during a public meeting Thursday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FONTENOT: However, we're using a quality criteria of enumerating over 99% of the housing units in each state.

WANG: As of Wednesday, the Census Bureau says it's reached 99% in only two states, Idaho and West Virginia. With COVID-19 raging on plus wildfires and hurricanes, many census advocates are worried, including Mario Marazzi, member of the bureau's Census Scientific Advisory Committee who used to run the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIO MARAZZI: Does the Census Bureau believe that Mother Nature will allow it to complete its current data collection timeline?

WANG: At the public meeting, Al Fontenot confirmed the bureau does have concerns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FONTENOT: We're going to do the best we can and see where we end up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GALE BREWER: We're in this together. However, you know, I'm a big Manhattan fan.

WANG: That leaves local politicians, like Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president in New York City, resorting to a little friendly competition to try to get out the count.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BREWER: Manhattanites, get off your butt and fill out that census. We want to beat Staten Island.

WANG: After all, the census determines who gets federal funding and political representation for the next 10 years.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.