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COVID-19

US appeals court blocks Trump from shutting down the census count early

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 30, 2020

An envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit is seen earlier this year.  (Paul Sancya)
An envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit is seen earlier this year. (Paul Sancya)
By Maura Dolan Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO – A federal appeals court decided Wednesday to let stand a preliminary injunction barring the Trump administration from shutting down the census count early in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that stopping the Census Bureau’s count now “risks undermining” its mission.

“Given the extraordinary importance of the census, it is imperative that the Bureau conduct the census in a manner that is most likely to produce a workable report in which the public can have confidence,” wrote Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson, a Clinton appointee, for the majority. Judge Morgan Christen, an Obama appointee, joined Rawlinson in the ruling.

The panel called the planned speedup “hasty and unexplained.”

The coronavirus outbreak severely disrupted the census count this year. The Census Bureau, which is part of the Department of Commerce, had to suspend field operations in March, and when they resumed it was unable to recruit enough temporary employees to work in the field.

Early on during the pandemic, there was widespread agreement that the count would have to be extended into next year. The legal deadline for getting the results to the president is Dec. 31. The Census Bureau asked Congress to extend the deadline to the end of April 2021. The House approved the extension. The Senate has not yet done so.

With no extension in place, the Trump administration argued that field operations had to end a month early to get the census to the president by the legal deadline.

The count is used for various federal decisions, including apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Electoral College.In early August, a “senior Department (of Commerce) official” in the Trump administration changed course and ordered the bureau to complete its fieldwork and data collection by Sept. 30, the court said.

A group of civil rights groups and local governments challenged the speedup. A federal district judge last month blocked it, saying the Trump administration knew that suspending operations a month early would lead to an inaccurate count.

Judge Patrick J. Bumatay, a Trump appointee, dissented, arguing the lower court lacked the authority to issue an injunction.

“Nearly every American’s plans this year have been roiled by the virus,” Bumatay wrote. “But it cannot roil the law.”

He said courts were “not empowered to swoop in and rescue the elected branches from themselves.”

The Trump administration also wants to exclude immigrants without documentation from being included in the count that determines reapportionment. Trump issued a memorandum ordering the change in July, but a federal court in New York blocked it this month. Trump has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 9th Circuit will continue to consider the government’s appeal of the district court’s decision. The government may appeal the panel’s decision within the 9th Circuit or ask the Supreme Court to intervene. A spokesperson for the Justice Department could not be immediately reached for comment.

The U.S. census, taken every 10 years, is mandated by the Constitution.

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