Judge: Census violated order; demands mass text to workers

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FILE – In this Aug. 26, 2020, file photo, Lauri Dawn Kindness, left, helps a family participate in the U.S. Census as part of a campaign to increase Native American participation in the count, on the Crow Indian Reservation, in Lodge Grass, Montana. A complete count of Montana’s households could come with a big reward: a second seat in Congress and millions of federal dollars annually. But the 2020 census deadline remains in flux, making it uncertain if census takers will finish counting the vast, rural state. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A federal judge ordered the Census Bureau to text every 2020 census worker by Friday, letting them know the head count of every U.S. resident is continuing through the end of the month and not ending next week, as the agency previously had announced in violation of her court order.

The new order issued late Thursday by U.S. District Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, instructed the Census Bureau to send out a mass text saying an Oct. 5 target data for finishing the nation’s head count is not in effect and that people can still answer the questionnaire and census takers can still knock on doors through Oct. 31.

The judge also ordered Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham to file a declaration with the court by the start of next week confirming his agency was following a preliminary injunction she had issued last week.

Besides deciding how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, the census also determines how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed annually. Among other things, that spending includes highway funding and money for health care and education.

Judge Koh wrote in Thursday’s decision that the Census Bureau and Commerce Department, which oversees the agency, had violated her injunction “in several ways.” She threatened them with sanctions or contempt proceedings if they violated the injunction again.

“Defendants’ dissemination of erroneous information; lurching from one hasty, unexplained plan to the next; and unlawful sacrifices of completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census are upending the status quo, violating the Injunction Order, and undermining the credibility of the Census Bureau and the 2020 Census,” the judge wrote. “This must stop.”

Koh’s injunction last week suspended a Sept. 30 deadline for ending the head count and also a Dec. 31 deadline for turning in numbers used to determine how many congressional seats each state gets in a process known as apportionment. By doing this, the deadlines reverted back to a previous Census Bureau plan that had field operations ending Oct. 31 and the reporting of apportionment figures at the end of April.

By issuing the injunction, the judge sided with civil rights groups and local governments that had sued the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Commerce. Those groups had argued that minorities and others in hard-to-count communities would be missed if the counting ended in September.

Koh referred to a tweet by the Commerce Department and Census Bureau last Monday that they now were targeting Oct. 5 as the date to end the census as “a hasty and unexplained change to the Bureau’s operations that was created in 4 days.”

“The decision also risks further undermining trust in the Bureau and its partners, sowing more confusion, and depressing Census participation,” Koh wrote.

In court papers, attorneys for the federal government argued that the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau had been complying with the judge’s injunction.

The Census Bureau said it sent out the mandated message Friday afternoon. “As a result of court orders, the October 5, 2020 target date is not operative, and data collection operations will continue through October 31, 2020,” the message read. “Employees should continue to work diligently and enumerate as many people as possible. Contact your supervisor with any questions.”

The Census Bureau reported that 99.1% of the nation’s households had been counted, though several states in the South were trailing that figure. About a third had been counted by census takers knocking on doors and two-thirds had been counted by people self-responding online, by mail or by phone.

Despite Thursday’s order, there was still confusion on the ground about when the census would end. Pam Coleman, who is chair of a statewide committee responsible for census outreach efforts in New Mexico, said census staff in her area had not received directions on what they should do as of Friday afternoon.

“While there is justifiable cause for hope, it is not completely clear when the count will end,” said Coleman, who chairs New Mexico’s State Complete Count Commission.

Earlier this week, Koh had told attorneys for the civil rights groups and local governments that she would be open to a contempt motion against the Trump administration.

While the court has the authority to find the Trump administration in contempt, the plaintiff attorneys said in a motion that they were not seeking a contempt finding at this time. Instead, they said they wanted full compliance with the judge’s order, arguing the Trump administration had violated it “several times over.”

“An unrushed, full and fair count is paramount to ensuring the accuracy of the 2020 Census,” said Melissa Sherry, one of the plaintiff attorneys. “This ruling brings us one step closer to realizing that important goal.”

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