Judge rejects Justice Department request to replace census legal team

Judge rejects Justice Department request to replace census legal team

WASHINGTON–A federal judge in New York late Tuesday rejected the Justice Department’s request to replace its legal team that had been leading an effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman ruled that the government provided “no reasons, let alone satisfactory reasons,” for the request.

“Any new motions to withdraw shall be supported by a signed and sworn affidavit from each counsel seeking to withdraw stating satisfactory reasons for withdrawing,” Furman said in a three-page order. “In the event any new motion is filed, new counsel for defendants shall also file an affidavit providing unequivocal assurances that the substitution of counsel will not delay further litigation of the case.”

The Justice Department declined comment on Furman’s order, which comes two days after officials abruptly indicated that they were replacing the legal team assigned to the case.

In a brief statement Sunday, Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the department was “shifting these matters to a new team of Civil Division lawyers going forward.”

“Since these cases began, the lawyers representing the United States in these cases have given countless hours to defending the Commerce Department and have consistently demonstrated the highest professionalism, integrity, and skill inside and outside the courtroom,” Kupec said, offering no additional explanation for the move. “The attorney general appreciates that service, thanks them for their work on these important matters, and is confident that the new team will carry on in the same exemplary fashion as the cases progress.” 

Furman’s ruling effectively serves as a new rebuke to President Donald Trump who has continued to push for the addition of a controversial citizenship question, even though the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the effort last month, with Chief Justice John Roberts questioning the administration’s rationale.

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“The evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation…,” Roberts wrote. “The sole stated reason seems to have been contrived.”

The citizenship question has faced strong criticism from opponents who have said that its inclusion would prevent millions of non-citizens from responding to the census out of fear that the information could be used for immigration enforcement, altering the allocation of federal funding.

Adding the question could also cost seats in Congress for California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois and Arizona — states with large non-citizen populations.

Attorney General William Barr and Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, have recently expressed confidence in the administration’s odds of success in amending the census questionnaire.

“I think the president has expressed determination,” Cuccinelli said on Fox News. “He has noted that the Supreme Court didn’t say this can’t be asked. They said that they didn’t appreciate the process by which it came forward the first time, so the president is determined to fix that …” 

On Friday, Trump said he might issue an executive order to push the question onto the census, a move that would likely be challenged in courts by advocacy groups and opponents. 

More: Census citizenship question: what we know about the debate so far

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