Federal judge orders Census Bureau to keep counting past end of September

A federal judge has blocked the Trump administration’s plan to end the 2020 census count a month early and said administration officials knew, but failed to disclose, that the speedup would lead to an inaccurate population count.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh of San Jose issued a nationwide injunction Thursday night requiring the Census Bureau to return to its previous schedule of contacting households and counting residents through Oct. 31. The bureau had announced Aug. 3 that it would end census-taking on Sept. 30 so that it could deliver the results to President Trump by the legal deadline of Dec. 31.

The once-per-decade population count determines each state’s number of seats in the House of Representatives and is used by federal officials to apportion $1.5 trillion in funds per year.

In the Aug. 3 announcement, the Census Bureau said the shortened schedule would not affect the accuracy of the count. But less than two weeks earlier, Koh said, a bureau official issued a memo saying the speedup would lead to a census of “unacceptable quality.” And the Census Bureau’s associate director for field operations wrote that anyone who thought the results could be delivered by Dec. 31 “has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation.”

While the Census Bureau was publicly declaring that it would meet the deadline by hiring additional staff and increasing training, Koh said, the bureau’s own reports showed it had only 38% of the census-takers it needed.

In ordering the speedup, Koh said, administration officials violated “their constitutional and statutory obligations to produce an accurate census” and “offered an explanation that runs counter to the evidence.”

She said the evidence showed that the Census Bureau “had received pressure from the Commerce Department” to shorten its schedule. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was appointed by Trump.

The Trump administration said Friday it will ask the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to overturn Koh’s ruling.

Acting in a lawsuit by civil rights groups and local governments, Koh had issued a restraining order Sept. 6 requiring the Census Bureau to maintain full-scale operations while she considered whether to extend the census through October. She acted in response to a Justice Department court filing that said the bureau “has already begun taking steps to conclude field operations” in areas with high response rates.

Trump is also seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count, an action that could strip House seats from California and other states with large immigrant populations. A federal court in New York has ruled against the president’s proposal, but the administration has appealed to the Supreme Court.

Derrick Johnson, chief executive of the NAACP, a plaintiff in the suit over the census schedule, said, “The decision to continue the census will ensure proper attention is given to overlooked and unreported areas that need to be counted the most.”

Virginia Kase, chief executive of the League of Women Voters, another plaintiff, called the ruling “a victory for democracy.”

Koh was appointed to the court by President Barack Obama in 2010 and nominated by Obama to the Ninth Circuit in February 2016. With Republicans in the majority, her nomination won approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee but never received a confirmation vote on the Senate floor.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @BobEgelko

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