U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross gestures as he leaves after addressing delegates at the annual Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in east London, on November 6, 2017.
Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Federal judge: Trump admin broke law with Census gambit

Updated

The Trump administration announced about a year ago that that the 2020 Census would include a question about citizenship status, and as regular readers know, the move immediately drew swift condemnations. The criticisms were rooted in fact: the question is likely to discourage immigrants’ participation in the census, which would mean under-represented communities in the official count, affecting everything from political power to public investments.

In January, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman ruled against the administration and barred it from proceeding with its Census plan. Yesterday, as the Washington Post reported, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg went even further.

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. […]

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.

The result was a policy intended to undercount specific parts of the population, which in turn ran afoul of the Constitution, the Administrative Procedure Act, and Census Act.

And while there are still additional steps as the matter is litigated, it’s worth re-emphasizing the apparent fact that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross played fast and loose with the truth about how the Census change was made – and he got caught.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, once the legal challenge to the Census policy got underway, the administration disclosed some pretty interesting emails. In May 2017, for example, then-White House strategist Steve Bannon asked Ross to “talk to someone about the census.” Soon after, the Commerce secretary started demanding that his team include the controversial question.

And while that’s notable in its own right, it’s especially important because Ross may have lied to Congress about the series of events. In March 2018, the Commerce secretary testified under oath to the U.S. House that it was the Justice Department that had initiated the request for the question.

In fact, when pressed specifically on whether he’d discussed the citizenship question with anyone in the Trump White House, Ross said, “I am not aware of any such.”

We now know that the cabinet secretary’s under-oath answers were, at a minimum, inaccurate. As Seeborg concluded in his ruling, the “evidence establishes” that the official explanation was little more than “a pretext.” Ross, the judge added, “acted in bad faith” with his misleading explanation.

It was several months later when Ross’ memory was jogged: he conceded in October 2018 that he had, in fact, spoken with former White House adviser Steve Bannon and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions about adding the citizenship question.

As for the road ahead, the U.S. Supreme Court will almost certainly weigh in on the controversy before Census materials are printed this summer.