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Justice Department says allegations that it hid true motives for census citizenship question are ‘frivolous’

Census T-shirts are displayed at an event.
Census T-shirts are displayed at an event. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
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The Justice Department on Monday responded to allegations that it had hidden the government’s true motives for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, saying they border on “frivolous.”

In a filing to U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman of New York’s Southern District, Justice Department attorneys accused lawyers challenging the question of trying to “derail” a Supreme Court ruling on the case, which is expected by the end of this month.

The letter came four days after new evidence emerged linking the citizenship question to Thomas Hofeller, who was a Republican redistricting strategist, and two days before a court hearing scheduled by Furman, one of three federal judges who ruled against the question earlier this year.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers challenging the question wrote to Furman on Thursday morning requesting that he impose sanctions on the defendants.

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Files found in Hofeller’s affairs after his death in August revealed that he “played a significant role in orchestrating the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Decennial Census to create a structural electoral advantage for, in his own words, ‘Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,’ ” plaintiffs’ lawyers said.

The lawyers said administration officials had relied on a 2015 study by Hofeller concluding that adding it “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and benefit white Republicans in redistricting. The lawyers said Hofeller then pushed the idea with the Trump administration in 2017, contradicting sworn testimony by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s expert adviser A. Mark Neuman and senior Justice Department official John Gore, as well as other testimony by defendants. The lawyers also wrote that the Trump administration used a rationale suggested by Hofeller — enforcement of the Voting Rights Act — to justify the question, that a 2017 Justice Department letter requesting it used Hofeller’s words almost verbatim, and that officials purposely obscured Hofeller’s role in court proceedings.

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In a six-page letter filed to Furman, Justice Department lawyers denied those claims. “Plaintiffs provide no evidence that Gore ever read, received, or was even aware of the existence of that unpublished study,” the Justice Department attorneys wrote. “There is no smoking gun here, only smoke and mirrors.”

It called any link between Hofeller’s study and the 2017 Justice Department letter “imagined.”

The letter filed on Monday also argued that it is “too late to reopen the evidence in this already-closed case,” adding, “Plaintiffs are not entitled to a do-over.”

Opponents of the question have argued it will suppress response to the survey among immigrant communities, resulting in an undercount in the areas where they live.

The population count from the decennial census is used to allocate $800 billion a year in federal funding and determine congressional representation and redistricting.

A key issue in the challenges to the citizenship question is how it came to be added. Ross originally told Congress his decision to add it came solely in response to the December 2017 Justice Department request, but lawsuits later produced emails showing that Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, had been pushing for the question for months before that.

The letter also said the plaintiffs’ lawyers had misrepresented Hofeller’s study. Rather than analyzing the effects of adding a citizenship question, it said Hofeller had analyzed the effects of switching representation from all residents to citizens of voting age. It also questioned why plaintiffs’ lawyers had waited until last week to present the evidence, when they had apparently had it since February.

The Supreme Court heard the case April 23. Evidence in the case concluded with oral arguments that day, and it appeared that the conservative majority seemed inclined to agree with the government that the decision to add the question was within the authority of the commerce secretary.

If the court followed normal procedure, it voted that week on the outcome of the case, and the justices are in the process of writing the opinion.

Robert Barnes contributed to this report.