UPDATE: On January 15, 2019, in a case brought by other groups, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York ruled against the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship status question to the 2020 census, rejecting the administration’s transparent attempts to deceptively frame the question as a defense of voting rights. LDF’s separate lawsuit against the DOJ is still ongoing for their failure to disclose documents in response to requests that would provide more transparency around the attempt to add the citizenship question.
Specifically, in October 2018, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) sued the Department of Justice (DOJ) to compel the release of records detailing the department’s role in the decision to reinstate a citizenship question on the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census. The lawsuit filed by LDF, along with non-partisan ethics watchdog American Oversight, asks the court to order DOJ to comply with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted by LDF seeking a range of documents about the citizenship question.
When Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced in March 2018 that the 2020 decennial Census would include a citizenship question, he initially attributed the decision to a request from the DOJ. Documents released in recent months have cast doubt on that narrative, suggesting that Ross himself had initiated the move to add a citizenship question and had privately asked the DOJ to make the formal request.
The documents at issue in the lawsuit filed by LDF and American Oversight will help shed light on the origin of the citizenship question and the process by which DOJ developed and issued its recommendation to the Commerce Department.
According to an October 2018 filing by the DOJ in response to a multi-state lawsuit seeking to block the citizenship question, Ross has admitted discussing the question with former White House senior adviser Stephen Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions as early as the spring of 2017 – contradicting testimony Ross gave to Congress earlier this year. According to the filing, Ross remembered Bannon asking the Commerce secretary to speak to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach about a possible citizenship question. Kobach served as Vice Chair of President Trump’s disbanded “voter fraud” commission.
In April 2018, soon after Ross claimed that the citizenship question came at DOJ’s request, LDF submitted a FOIA request to DOJ seeking memos, analyses, correspondence, and other documents regarding the department’s review of the citizenship question, including the necessity of a citizenship question to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, whether the existing citizenship question on the American Community Survey is sufficient for this purpose, and the potential impact on minority groups’ participation in the upcoming Census. Six months later, DOJ had failed to provide records in response to LDF’s FOIA request, leading LDF to file suit in the Southern District of New York to compel the department to respond. Since filing their FOIA lawsuit, DOJ has produced a limited set of documents, available here and here.