Attorney General Jeff Sessions personally ordered Department of Justice officials not to meet with the Census Bureau to discuss alternatives to adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, a top DOJ official said in a deposition Friday.
John Gore, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, revealed the attorney general’s personal involvement while testifying in a lawsuit challenging the question, according to a Friday court filing.
The plaintiffs in the case say Sessions’ move further supports their argument that a DOJ request for a citizenship question was meant to hide the Trump administration’s true intent.
The plaintiffs are 18 states, the District of Columbia, several cities and a handful of immigrant groups that argue the Commerce Department, which oversees the decennial census, had decided to add the question even before the DOJ made its request. The Justice Department had claimed that adding a citizenship question would help it get better data to enforce the Voting Rights Act ― a pretext, the plaintiffs say.
Furthermore, they argue that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was determined to add the question regardless of what any analysis of the consequences found, and that he lobbied the DOJ to request the question.
In January, after the DOJ made its request, the Census Bureau’s chief scientist wrote a memo advising against it. Adding a citizenship question, he said, would be costly and decrease the accuracy of census data. There was a better alternative: using existing administrative records to get citizenship data.
In February, Ron Jarmin, the bureau’s acting director, wrote to a top Commerce and Census Bureau official that the DOJ did not want to meet to discuss the request. In April, Jarmin testified before Congress that he did not believe anyone from the Census Bureau had met with anyone from the Justice Department or the White House about adding the citizenship question.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the brief.
According to that filing, Gore said in his deposition that he didn’t know if the data collected from a citizenship question would have “larger margins of error, or will be any more precise, than the existing citizenship data on which DOJ currently relies.”
Those comments are important because the plaintiffs, as well as some former Justice Department officials, say the DOJ does not need better citizenship data to enforce the Voting Rights Act. The decennial census, which goes out to every American household, has not asked about citizenship since 1950 ― 15 years before the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. In their filing, the plaintiffs said Gore’s comments were evidence that the stated rationale of needing better data to enforce the Voting Rights Act was merely a pretext.
The Department of Justice fought hard to block Gore from having to sit for a deposition in the suit. Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court put on hold an order to have Ross sit for a deposition in the case.
In a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation earlier this month, Sessions criticized a lower court’s order to order Ross’ deposition, calling it an example of judicial overreach.
“When a hot-button policy issue ends up in litigation, judges are starting to believe their role is to examine the entire process that led to the policy decision— to redo the entire political debate in their courtrooms,” he said, according to prepared remarks. “Decision-making is improved when the decision-makers can have candid and open conversations. It is no different in the executive branch.”
Trial in the case is set to begin Nov. 5 in New York City.