From the moment it was announced in March, the decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census was described by critics as a ploy to discourage immigrants from filling out the form and improve Republican political fortunes. The Commerce Department, which made the decision, insisted that sound policy, not politics, was its sole motivation. Now a federal lawsuit seeking to block the question has cast doubt on the department’s explanation and the veracity of the man who offered it, Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. And it has given the plaintiffs in the suit — attorneys general for 17 states, the District of Columbia and a host of cities and counties — broad leeway to search for evidence that the critics are correct. In a hearing last week in the United States District Court in Manhattan, Judge Jesse M. Furman gave the plaintiffs permission to search government files and take sworn testimony from up to 10 administration officials in an effort to discover how and why the citizenship decision was made.
The administration has claimed that better data on the citizenship of voting-age adults was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. But additional evidence could cast doubt on that explanation and potentially lay the groundwork for the question’s removal from the 2020 census.
After Mr. Ross’s explanation for the citizenship question’s origin shifted, Judge Furman said it appeared that the Commerce Department had acted in “bad faith” in deciding to add the question.
Mr. Ross said in a statement on March 26 that the Justice Department, which oversees enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, had asked that the question be placed on census forms. But late last month he reversed course, stating in a memo that he actually had been discussing the citizenship question “with other government officials” since shortly after taking office in February 2017 — and that the Justice Department had made its request only after he or his aides asked it to.