ORLANDO, Fla. – With the number of U.S. households counted topping 95%, there is no reason for a judge to order the U.S. Census Bureau to extend by a month the head count of every U.S. resident, government attorneys said Tuesday.
“Plaintiffs’ claims of harm in this matter are rapidly evaporating," the government attorneys said in court papers ahead of a virtual court hearing in San Jose, California, over whether the 2020 census should stop Sept. 30 or continue through Oct. 31.
Census Bureau officials say they are on target to meet their goal of reaching at least 99% of U.S. households by the end of the month. But a coalition of cities, counties and civil rights groups have sued the statistical agency and the Department of Commerce in an effort to extend the 2020 census for another month, saying the shortened schedule will miss minority communities.
Attorneys for the coalition said in court papers Tuesday that the decision to shorten the schedule was forced on the bureau. Bureau officials knew the shortened scheduled would risk accuracy in the count and “was impossible to do right."
In an internal email sent to other top Census Bureau officials in late July, Tim Olson, associate director for field operations, said the bureau was having trouble deploying census takers because “people are afraid to work for us."
“And this means it is ludicrous to think we can complete 100% of the nation's data collection earlier than 10/31 ..." Olson said in the email that was released into the court record Tuesday.
Anyone who thinks that the Census Bureau can turn in numbers used for figuring out how many congressional seats each state gets by the end of the year “has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation," Olson said.
The judge in the San Jose case earlier this month issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Census Bureau from winding down 2020 census operations until she could issue a ruling. Plaintiffs in the San Jose case allege the decision to shorten the schedule was made to accommodate a directive from President Donald Trump. Trump's order tried to exclude people in the country illegally from being included in the numbers used for deciding how many congressional seats each state gets in a process known as apportionment.
“There is a complete lineup in timing between the presidential memo and the decision to cut short the census,” said Melissa Sherry, an attorney for the coalition, during Tuesday's hearing.
Blaming the presidential memorandum for the shortened census schedule was “improper," said government attorney Alexander Sverdlov.
A three-judge panel in New York blocked Trump’s directive earlier this month, saying it was unlawful. The Trump administration on Tuesday asked the Supreme Court for fast action on its appeal.
U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh said during Tuesday's hearing that it was clear that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose agency oversees the Census Bureau, played a critical role in the decision to shorten the schedule.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, the bureau had planned to complete the 2020 census by the end of July. In response to the pandemic, it extended the deadline to the end of October. That changed to the end of September after the Republican-controlled Senate failed to take up a request from the Census Bureau to extend the deadline for turning over the numbers used for apportionment. As a result, government attorneys say the Census Bureau has no choice but to finish the count by Sept. 30.
The census helps determine how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed annually and how many congressional seats each state gets.
In their court papers Tuesday, the government attorneys said the census operations were being harmed by the temporary restraining order. If Koh agrees with the plaintiffs to issue an order mandating the extra month for the census, it should be suspended while the Census Bureau appeals, the government attorneys said.
At the end of Tuesday's hearing, Koh said she would issue a decision in two days and blamed any delays in a ruling on the government's failure to produce requested documents in a timely manner. When Sverdlov asked the judge to make a decision from the bench so the government could start the appeal process, Koh cut him off. Moments earlier, Koh noted that only four states had reached the 99% goal so far. Those states are Idaho, West Virginia, Hawaii and Maine.
“Four out of 50 states have reached the threshold," Koh said. “Why is the bureau insisting on ending data collection in eight days?"
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