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The bureau will have through Oct. 31 to finish its enumeration under the injunction, though an appeal is expected.
The Census Bureau must continue its decennial count through October rather than wrapping it up Sept. 30 under a court order issued late Thursday.
The decision—issued in a federal court in California in response to a lawsuit brought by many nonprofit groups—marks a dramatic shakeup for the 2020 census just days before it was set to stop its enumeration. After the novel coronavirus pandemic forced the bureau to push back its original schedule, Census had planned to continue knocking on doors through October. The Trump administration later revised that timeframe, in a decision that came from outside the bureau, to expedite the delivery of apportionment data by a statutory deadline of Dec. 31, 2020. The judge stayed both the Sept. 30 and Dec. 31 deadlines.
The Trump administration quickly appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, putting the fate of the census in further flux.
Lucy Koh, the U.S. Court for the Northern District of California judge who issued the preliminary injunction, highlighted internal emails and presentations, as well as findings from external watchdogs, that stressed the risk of an incomplete and inaccurate count under the truncated schedule. The judge said the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in the case through arguing the Trump administration violated the Administrative Procedures Act by making an "arbitrary and capricious” decision. Specifically, Koh said, the administration did not properly weigh their obligations to produce an accurate census, ignored its own proclamations that meeting an end-of-year delivery timeline was already out of the question, failed to consider alternative options, offered inconsistent justifications for their decisions and unfairly inconvenienced its partners who had planned for the Oct. 31 deadline.
Koh faulted the Trump administration for politicizing the count.
The “facts show not only that the bureau could not meet the statutory deadline, but also that the bureau had received pressure from the Commerce Department to cease seeking an extension of the deadline,” the judge said.
President Trump, Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross and Census leadership have all at various points said the bureau would need to blow past its Dec. 31 deadline to deliver a complete and accurate count.
“By adopting the replan,” Koh said, “defendants sacrificed adequate accuracy for an uncertain likelihood of meeting one statutory deadline.” The Trump administration had an obligation first to ensure it delivered accurate data, and secondarily should make a “good-faith effort” to meet its deadlines.
The groups launching the suit, including the National Urban League and NAACP, would suffer irreparable harm, Koh said, as they would risk losing federal funding and could see their constitutional rights to political representation violated. They would also have to spend resources to mitigate undercounting, the judge said. She added the hardship for the government would be minimal as it will be “missing a statutory deadline they had expected to miss anyway.”
Following the Trump administration's appeal, it remains unclear how Census will implement the injunction. A court had already imposed an injunction prohibiting the bureau from engaging in normal wind-down procedures, which Census officials have said prevented it from redeploying its most effective enumerators to regions with the most significant outstanding undercounts. Based on Census’ count of housing units in the country, it has so far received information for 96.6% of them. Just seven states and Puerto Rico have surpassed a 99% enumeration rate.
Census did not respond to a request for comment. The California-based federal court is set to hold a management conference on Monday.
This story has been updated to reflect the Trump administration's appeal.
Eric Katz is a senior correspondent at Government Executive.