Court Battles

Judge sanctions DOJ for failing to disclose documents in citizenship question case

A federal judge in Manhattan is penalizing the Trump administration for failing to turn over a trove of documents regarding the government’s abandoned effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. 

Judge Jesse Furman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ordered the Department of Justice (DOJ) to pay the legal fees incurred by a group immigration advocates who sued to block the question from being added.

Under the order, the department will have to reimburse the groups for the costs associated with addressing the missing documents in court. Furman said in an opinion that imposing further sanctions would be unwarranted since the DOJ has already lost the court fight over the citizenship question.

“To be sure, this was not DOJ’s finest hour,” Furman wrote. “At best, DOJ failed to produce more than ten percent of the documents that Defendants were required to produce as part of this litigation. But the Court cannot conclude from the record before it that further investigation into possible sanctionable conduct is warranted in the circumstances of this case.” 

The lawsuit from a broad coalition of states, cities and nonprofits reached its climax last year when the Supreme Court blocked Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross from adding the question to the census, rejecting the administration’s rationale that it was intended to collect data for voting rights enforcement. 

After the high court’s decision, the DOJ admitted that it had come across more than 2,000 documents it had failed to turn over. 

The plaintiffs in the case had asked Furman to impose broader sanctions, but the judge wrote Thursday that the new documents would not have changed the outcome. 

“As Defendants themselves acknowledge, Plaintiffs prevailed at trial and in the Supreme Court on precisely the theory that the NGO Plaintiffs seek to reinforce here: that Secretary Ross’s stated reasons for adding the citizenship question were contrived and pretextual,” Furman wrote.

Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project and one of the lawyers who brought the case, applauded the decision.

“The court has reaffirmed that the Trump administration’s ‘official story concealed their true reasons’ for attempting to add a citizenship question to the census,” Ho said in a statement. “It also found that the Department of Justice’s conduct in this case was ‘not DOJ’s finest hour,’ marred ‘by a lapse that would make a first-year litigation associate wince.’ We couldn’t agree more. The court appropriately imposed monetary penalties on the administration, which will finally bring this litigation to an end.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tags Wilbur Ross

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