Report updated: July 3, 2019, 9 p.m.
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department reversed course Wednesday on whether the 2020 census will be printed without a question on citizenship, after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted out a statement saying the government will still try to ask the question in the once-a-decade census.
In a Wednesday afternoon conference call, U.S. District Judge George Hazel of Maryland pressed DOJ lawyers on how they would handle the president's tweet about "moving forward" to include the question, one day after the government announced there would be no citizenship question on the 2020 census.
At the start of the call, Justice Department special counsel Joshua Gardner admitted that they were still sorting out how to respond.
"The tweet this morning was the first I had heard of the president's position on this issue, just like the plaintiffs and your honor," Gardner said. "I do not have a deeper understanding of what that means at this juncture, other than what the president has tweeted. But, obviously, as you can imagine, I am doing my absolute best to figure out what's going on."
However, Gardner added that the Census Bureau has not stopped its current process of printing the census without a citizenship question, as the government continues to weigh what options it may have.
Hazel ordered the government to make clear whether the citizenship question would appear on the census by Friday or tell the court how it plans to move forward to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling.
The Census Bureau had previously set a target date of early July to begin printing the questionnaire in order to have it prepared for delivery to the American public by the April 1 deadline.
Last week in a 5-4 decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four liberal justices in ruling that the reasoning the Trump administration offered for including the citizenship question — that the information was needed to protect minority voting rights — was "contrived" and did not meet the standards for a clear explanation of why it should be asked.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross responded, saying, "I respect the Supreme Court but strongly disagree with its ruling regarding my decision to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 Census," for the first time since 1950. "The Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question. My focus, and that of the Bureau and the entire Department, is to conduct a complete and accurate census."
Trump called the high court ruling "totally ridiculous."
The census is important because it determines how many seats in the House of Representatives each state is allotted and how $800 billion in federal aid is disbursed.
Trump's Democratic opponents have claimed that including the question is a Republican ploy to scare immigrants in to not participating in the census out of fear that immigration officials might target them for deportation when they determine that they are in the country illegally. An undercount in Democrat-leaning areas with large immigrant and Latino populations could reduce congressional representation for such states and cut federal aid.
After the Supreme Court heard arguments on the citizenship question but before it ruled, documents emerged from the files of a deceased Republican election districting expert showing that the citizenship question was aimed at helping Republicans gain an electoral edge over Democrats.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the House Oversight Committee announced on Wednesday afternoon that the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Steven Dillingham, will testify at a hearing on July 24 on the status of planning and preparations for the 2020 Census.
"It is time for the Census Bureau to move beyond all the outside political agendas and distractions and devote its full attention to preparing for the 2020 Census," Raskin, the Maryland Democrat, said. "This hearing will examine the current status of the Bureau's readiness for the Census next y especially in areas where the bureau may be falling behind such as IT, security and public education."