Judge Finds Trump Administration Broke Law With Citizenship Question On Census

A second Federal Judge has found that the Commerce Department violated the law when it moved to put a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census form.

A Federal Judge in California has ruled that the Commerce Department violated the law when it added a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census form:

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross acted in “bad faith,” broke several laws and violated the constitutional underpinning of representative democracy when he added a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

In finding a breach of the Constitution’s enumeration clause, which requires a census every 10 years to determine each state’s representation in Congress, the 126-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco went further than a similar decision on Jan. 15 by Judge Jesse Furman in New York.

The Supreme Court has already agreed to review Furman’s narrower decision, with arguments set for April 23, but may now need to expand its inquiry to constitutional dimensions.

The Commerce Department did not respond to requests for comment.

The administration has been on the losing end of scores of court decisions involving immigration issues since President Trump took office. But the census case has taken on special significance because it strikes at the heart of the United States’ form of government and because of what Seeborg described as a “strong showing of bad faith” by a Cabinet secretary who, influenced in part by White House advisers, tried to conceal his motives.

The cases against Ross have been brought by jurisdictions with significant immigrant populations. Only two have completed trials, the case heard by Furman and brought by 18 states led by New York, and Wednesday’s challenge, initiated by the state of California and combined with a suit brought by the city of San Jose.

Unable to find any expert in the Census Bureau who approved of his plan to add the citizenship question, Seeborg wrote, Ross engaged in a “cynical search to find some reason, any reason” to justify the decision.

He was fully aware that the question would produce a census undercount, particularly among Latinos, the judge said.

That would have probably reduced the representation in Congress — and thus in the electoral college that decides the presidency — of states with significant immigrant populations, notably California.

Because census data is used to apportion distribution of federal funds, an undercount would also have cheated these same jurisdictions, the judge said.

Seeborg, like Furman, found after a trial that Ross misrepresented both to the public and Congress his reasons for adding the citizenship question last March. Ross claimed he was acting at the request of the Justice Department in the interest of enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

The addition, or as some would point out reintroduction, of a citizenship question to the Census has been a point of controversy ever since it was announced last March. At the time, many critics argued that it was meant to discourage Latinos, whether they are here legally or illegally, from answering the Census with the aim of reducing the number of people counted in predominantly blue states and thus influencing, even in a small way, the redistricting process that will take place in the wake of the Census itself. These concerns were seemingly reinforced when the Commerce Department announced plans to “cross-check” responses to the citizenship question with data from other agencies of the Federal Government, raising fears that the data might be used to harass certain segments of the population.

As a result, as with many other controversial decisions on the part of the Trump Administration, it resulted in a number of lawsuits seeking to block the questions from being included. Within hours after the decision was announced, for example, California filed a lawsuit on the issue, arguing that asking the question would discourage minority response rates to the Census, which in turn would impact not just redistricting but also the allocation of Federal resources, which are often based on population estimates drawn from Census data. Roughly a week later, New York and seventeen other states filed their own suit challenging the question based on roughly the same grounds as the California lawsuit. In January, the Judge hearing the New York case ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs and although his decision was narrower than Judge Seeborg’s ruling in this case, he also found that Ross and the Commerce Department had essentially acted contrary to the law in adding the citizenship question to the Census and issued a ruling barring the department from going forward with its plans. Rather than appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals, the Federal Government chose to take the unusual step of seeking an immediate review from the Supreme Court. Perhaps because it deals with important issues of Federal concern, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, and that appeal is scheduled to be heard on April 23rd,

As was the case with the decision out of New York, Judge Seeborg’s decision purports to enjoin the Commerce Department from adding the citizenship question to the ballot. Given the impending argument in the Supreme Court, it’s unclear that this decision will have any real impact in and of itself. if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Plaintiffs in the New York case, then the injunction from that case will remain in effect and there will be no citizenship question on the ballot. If the Court rules in favor of the Federal Government in the New York case, though, then the injunction issued by Judge Furman will be lifted and, in all likelihood, the injunction issued by Judge Seeborg will effectively be nullified. Additionally, it’s likely that the Court will seek to put a stay on the Seeborg’s ruling pending the outcome of the Supreme Court appeal, which we’re not likely to know until the end of the Supreme Court’s term in June,

Notwithstanding all of that, this is yet another case in which the Federal Courts have ruled against the Administration, something we have seen with respect to everything from the Muslim Travel Ban and the effort to repeal the DACA program to the ban on transgender soldiers serving openly in the military and the Administration’s efforts to stop cities and localities from becoming so-called “sanctuary cities.” Most recently, there have been a number of lawsuits filed by several states and independent groups regarding the President’s declaration of a national emergency to help pay for his border wall. While some of the holdings in these cases have been overturned or limited on appeal, the fact that the courts have pushed back on Administration policies moves so aggressively is both a sign of hope that at least part of the ‘checks and balances” that the Constitution put in place are still working and a sign of just how much this Administration is acting in an extra-legal and extra-Constitutional manner.

Here’s the opinion:

California Et Al v. Wilbur … by on Scribd

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Economics and Business, International Trade, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:


    How do you think the Supreme Court is likely to rule on this if the case makes it that far? Also, has it always been illegal and, consequently, the several times the question has appeared on the decennial census was unconstitutional or has it become illegal?

  2. @Dave Schuler:

    Since SCOTUS accepted the direct appeal of the New York case, we’ll find that out soon enough. I honestly don’t know what to expect on this issue from this court.

    As for the second question, I don’t believe it was challenged in the past, but that is a good question.

  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Have no doubt, Justice Boof will side with white supremacy.

    Dennison is Alabama and signing bibles.
    I’m not a religious fella…but isn’t that sacrilegious???

  4. Mikey says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Actor/comedian John Fugelsang put it best: “Trump is Jesus for followers of Jesus who have completely rejected the teachings of Jesus.”

  5. Teve says:

    @Mikey: I follow him on Twitter, he’s pretty awesome. Another one of his quotes, responding to Trump talking about Bible study in public school:

    The only reason you’re president is that 62 million self-described Christians were completely illiterate about Jesus’ teachings.

    Every time Trump mentions the Bible an angel coughs up blood.

    Got-dang 😀

  6. Teve says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: I’m an atheist but is signing bibles okay?

    I don’t think I would sign anyone’s Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, etc.

  7. DrDaveT says:


    is signing bibles okay?

    Only if you’re the author.

  8. Teve says:
  9. Teve says:

    Ryan Knight

    When the man who embodies all 7 deadly sins—lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride—is signing Bibles it means that it is time to reevaluate your religion.

    6:02 PM · Mar 8, 2019 · Twitter for iPhone

  10. Gustopher says:

    @Teve: Seems disrespectful and sacrilegious, but what do I know? I’m not going to tell someone they are religioning wrong.

    Well, except the people who think that “the poor will always be with us” means “screw the poor”, and that “love thy neighbor” means “god hates fags”. Those people suffer from poor reading comprehension.

  11. Franklin says:

    @DrDaveT: I LOL’d!

  12. An Interested Party says:

    he’s signing the covers.

    Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!!! If there really is a God, those bibles should have spontaneously combusted the moment he signed them…what kind of cognitive dissonance does it take for a person who owns a bible to want this fiend, of all people, to sign it…

  13. de stijl says:

    Wait, what?!

    When did idolatry become okay? I must have missed that. I sort of remember this bit:

    You shall have no other gods before me.

  14. de stijl says:

    I’m trying to figure out which is more troubling – that folks walked up to him and offered their Bibles for Trump to sign, or that Trump decided it was okay to sign a Bible with his autograph.

    Wow! We live in interesting times.

  15. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    @Teve: That’s not a signature, that’s just “arrrrrrrrrrgh.” The first letter doesn’t even look like a “D.”

    (Also, I find myself wondering how much they paid donated to Making America Great Again for him to sign these. Surely, he didn’t do it for free.)