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Commerce secretary ordered to testify in lawsuit challenging 2020 census question

Posted at 11:55 AM, Sep 22, 2018

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross must sit for a deposition in a lawsuit against his department over its decision to include a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census, a federal judge ruled Friday.

The Commerce Department announced in March that the question of citizenship will again be included in the 2020 Census, which the administration said was necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

New York, along with other states and cities, filed a lawsuit in April to block the government's decision to include the question, arguing it would intimidate immigrants and decrease participation in the census.

US District Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York said Ross's deposition, limited to four hours, is needed "because Secretary Ross was personally and directly involved in the decision, and the unusual process leading to it, to an unusual degree."

The Commerce Department declined to comment on Furman's order. The Department of Justice also declined to comment.

Ross testified before the House earlier this year that the Department of Justice had "initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question." In his March memo, Ross said he "set out to take a hard look" at re-adding the question following the Justice Department's request.

In his opinion, Furman wrote, "The record developed thus far, however, casts grave doubt on those claims."

He noted that Ross,"by his own admission,"began considering reinstating a citizenship question shortly after his confirmation in February 2017, but before the Department of Justice's formal request in December 12, 2017.

In May 2017, Ross also demanded to know why no action had been taken on his request, taking "an unusually strong personal interest in the matter," Furman wrote.

The Commerce secretary also testified that he was "not aware" he discussed the Census question with "anyone in the White House," the judge wrote, adding that there is "now reason to believe" that Ross consulted with former senior White House adviser Steve Bannon on the issue.

The judge also noted that Ross ultimately mandated the addition of the question despite an internal Census Bureau memo sent to Ross in January, but made public in June, that warned it would hurt "the quality of the census count" and be "very costly."

Furman added that there was "something surprising, if not unsettling" about the government's "aggressive efforts to shield Secretary Ross from having to answer questions about his conduct."

"The Court concludes that the question is not a close one: Secretary Ross must sit for a deposition because, among other things, his intent and credibility are directly at issue in these cases," Furman wrote.