Civil rights groups, civic organizations, and local governments today (Tuesday, Aug. 18) filed a legal challenge in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to block the Trump administration’s plan forcing the Census Bureau to shorten the 2020 Census count, against the judgment of the Bureau’s expert staff and in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic. The lawsuit ties the administration’s “Rush Plan” to the president’s policy directive issued earlier this summer that seeks to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment numbers that determine states’ seats in the House of Representatives.

“Both the text of the Rush Plan announcement and the timing of the decision suggest that the federal government’s motivation for the Rush Plan is to facilitate another illegal act: suppressing the political power of communities of color by excluding undocumented people from the final apportionment count,” the lawsuit states. “To increase the chance that the President can execute this directive, he must receive the population totals while he is still in office.”

The lawsuit argues that the Trump administration’s new, accelerated census timeline cuts a crucial four weeks from the actual count and four months from the time for processing and reporting the data used to apportion the U.S. House of Representatives. The abrupt change disregards the bureau’s own plans for dealing with the hardships imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also undermine the quality and accuracy of the census as well as potentially produce a massive undercount of communities of color.

The lawsuit seeks to have the court declare the decision to scuttle the census COVID-19 plan unlawful because it violates the Enumeration Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, as well as the Administrative Procedure Act. 

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are membership and advocacy organizations, counties, cities, and individuals whose communities will almost certainly be inaccurately represented and underrepresented in the final census count if the administration succeeds in ending the 2020 Census data collection and processing prematurely. They include the National Urban League, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the League of Women Voters, Harris County in Texas, King County in Washington, the cities of Los Angeles, San Jose, and Salinas (California), and Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia of the Harris County Commissioners Court.

“We’re not going to allow the American people to be cheated out of a fair and accurate census count because politics has infected the process.,” says Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League. “The Trump administration has openly worked to drive down minority participation in the census to give less representation to more diverse states, and now is rushing the deadline so that the data can be manipulated to exclude immigrants, in defiance of the Constitution, before legislative districts are drawn.”

The suit names as defendants the Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau, along with their heads, Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham.

“The government’s Census timeline shift is another attempt to obstruct full enumeration of America’s people,” says Dr. Deborah Turner, President, Board of Directors, League of Women Voters of the United States. States and municipalities rely on an accurate Census count to ensure adequate funding of basic necessities for all Americans: critical infrastructure, schools, hospitals, social services. COVID presents a severe disruption to this vital counting process, and our government should be prioritizing plans that allow the Census Bureau to finish their work, not making last-minute changes designed to inhibit the process.”

The suit asks the court to keep the 2020 Census on the schedule proposed by census officials in April in response to COVID-19. Under that plan, the bureau would complete the census, including door-knocking, by October 31, 2020, and deliver apportionment numbers to the president by April 30, 2021. Redistricting data would be reported to the states by July 31, 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic imposed daunting new challenges to the decennial census just as the count was getting underway, including massive displacements of people. It upended all census field operations and undermined outreach to populations that the bureau has long struggled to count, including racial and ethnic minorities, non-English speakers, and undocumented persons.

Bureau officials requested an extension of census data collection, processing, and reporting deadlines to accommodate a COVID-19 plan that President Trump himself publicly supported. But on August 3, after months spent following their COVID-19 plan, Ross and Dillingham abruptly announced the census’s data-collection would stop September 30, a full month short of the time census officials had previously said was necessary to complete the count.

The lawsuit argues that the administration’s attempts to rush the census to a close pose a grave threat to the vital functions that rely on census data, from reapportioning the United States House of Representatives and redrawing state and local electoral districts to equitably distributing over $1.5 trillion annually in federal funds that support basic needs like education, food, and health care.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Latham & Watkins, LLP, Public Counsel, the Office of the Los Angeles City Attorney and the Office of the Salinas City Attorney.

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