COLLEGE PARK, Md. — A third federal judge has blocked the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, ruling Friday that it poses a "substantial risk" of undercounting Hispanics and non-citizens.
U.S. District Judge George Hazel in Maryland also concluded that a citizenship question is "arbitrary and capricious" and violates the Constitution and the federal Administrative Procedure Act.
Federal judges in New York and California previously barred the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the census for the first time since 1950. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments April 23 for the Justice Department's appeal of the New York judge's decision.
Hazel heard six days of trial testimony in January before ruling.
"Overwhelming evidence supports the Court's finding that a citizenship question will cause a differential decline in Census participation among noncitizen and Hispanic households," he wrote in his 119-page decision.
The Justice Department is "disappointed by this ruling," spokeswoman Kelly Laco said in a statement.
"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 added.
The Supreme Court justices are expected to rule by late June, which the Trump administration said is soon enough to allow printing and distribution of census forms next April.
Because of the tight timeframe for printing census forms, the high court granted unusually quick review of the first decision that went against the administration. That ruling, from a federal judge in New York, held that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' decision to have the census ask about citizenship was "arbitrary and capricious" under federal law. The second ruling, from a court in California, also found that asking about citizenship would violate the Constitution, which calls for a count of all people, not just citizens.
Former U.S. Census Bureau director John Thompson, the first plaintiffs' witness for the bench trial in Maryland, testified Ross disregarded "long established" Census Bureau protocols in adding the citizenship question. Thompson, who oversaw the bureau from 2013 through June 2017, said he doesn't think officials properly tested the question for the 2020 census.
"It's very problematic for me," Thompson said of Ross' decision.
In a court filing, plaintiffs' attorneys said Ross communicated with former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other administration officials before issuing the March 2018 directive "to further the unconstitutional goal of diluting the political power of non-white immigrant communities."
The Census Bureau began collecting citizenship data through the annual American Community Survey in 2005. Government lawyers said in a court filing that Ross decided to use the same wording from that "well-tested question" on the ACS for the citizenship question on the 2020 census.
Hazel said the evidence he considered includes several statements by Trump "demonstrating his animus toward immigrants" and expressing concern about "the political power that undocumented immigrants may wield." But the judge said nothing in the record shows Ross considered or adopted the president's statements before deciding to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
"Without more evidence demonstrating (Ross) was actually persuaded to make his decision based on discriminatory animus, a finding that, more likely than not, (Ross') real motivation was to depress immigrant response rates cannot be made. Ultimately, Secretary Ross' original rationale remains, to some extent, a mystery," the judge wrote.4 comments on this story
The plaintiffs for the Maryland case include residents of Texas, Arizona, Washington state, New Jersey, South Dakota, Nevada and Florida. Attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund also sued on behalf of more than two dozen organizations and individuals. The court agreed to consolidate the claims in December.
Plaintiffs' attorneys had urged Hazel to proceed with the Maryland trial as scheduled since the judge's ruling in the New York case could be reversed on appeal.
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.