A federal judge blocked the Commerce Department from adding a question on American citizenship to the 2020 census, handing a legal victory on Tuesday to critics who accused the Trump administration of trying to turn the census into a tool to advance Republican political fortunes. The ruling marks the opening round in a legal battle with potentially profound ramifications for federal policy and for politics at all levels, one that seems certain to reach the Supreme Court before the printing of census forms begins this summer. The upcoming census count will determine which states gain or lose seats in the House of Representatives when redistricting begins in 2021. When the Trump administration announced last year it was adding a citizenship question to the census, opponents argued the results would undercount noncitizens and legal immigrants — who tend to live in places that vote Democratic — and shift political power to Republican areas.
In a lengthy and stinging opinion, Judge Jesse M. Furman of the United States District Court in Manhattan said that Wilbur L. Ross Jr., the commerce secretary, broke “a veritable smorgasbord” of federal rules when he ordered the citizenship question added to the census nearly a year ago. Judge Furman said Mr. Ross cherry-picked facts to support his views, ignored or twisted contrary evidence and hid deliberations from Census Bureau experts.
Judge Furman also criticized Mr. Ross and his aides for giving false or misleading statements under oath as they struggled to explain their rationale for adding the question.
The Trump administration argued in court that Mr. Ross had the power to add the question and that past surveys had asked about citizenship. On Tuesday, a Justice Department spokeswoman, Kelly Laco, said officials were disappointed by the ruling and were still reviewing it.
“Our government is legally entitled to include a citizenship question on the census and people in the United States have a legal obligation to answer,” she said in a prepared statement. “Reinstating the citizenship question ultimately protects the right to vote and helps ensure free and fair elections for all Americans.”