The U.S. Census Bureau for now must stop following a plan that would have it winding down operations in order to finish the 2020 census at the end of September, according to a federal judge’s order.
U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, issued a temporary restraining order late Saturday, Sept. 5, against the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department, which oversees the agency. The order stops the Census Bureau from winding down operations until a court hearing is held on Sept. 17.
The once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident helps determine how $1.5 trillion in federal funding is distributed and how many congressional seats each state gets in a process known as apportionment.
The temporary restraining order was requested by a coalition of cities, counties and civil rights groups that had sued the Census Bureau, demanding it restore its previous plan for finishing the census at the end of October, instead of using a revised plan to end operations at the end of September. The coalition had argued the earlier deadline would cause the Census Bureau to overlook minority communities in the census, leading to an inaccurate count.
Because of the pandemic, the Census Bureau pushed back ending the count from the end of July to the end of October and asked Congress to extend the deadline for turning in the apportionment numbers from December, as required by law, into next spring. When the Republican-controlled Senate failed to take up the request, the bureau was forced to create a revised schedule that had the census ending in September, according to the statistical agency.
The lawsuit contends the Census Bureau changed the schedule to accommodate a directive from President Donald Trump to exclude people in the country illegally from the numbers used in redrawing congressional districts. The revised plan would have the Census Bureau handing in the apportionment numbers at the end of December, under the control of the Trump administration, no matter who wins the election in November.
As of Sept. 5, more than 86% of households have been counted. More than 65% of households were counted from self-responses online, by mail or by telephone, and 21% of households were counted by census takers who went to households that hadn’t yet answered the questionnaire.
Some census takers have been laid off and operations wound down as 85% of households in an area have been counted in what is known as the “closeout” phase, and starting Sept. 11, it will be up to the supervisors to wind down operations in an area even if it hasn’t achieved the 85% threshold, Census Associate Director Al Fontenot said.
In her order, Koh wrote that previous court cases had concluded that it’s in the public interest that Congress be fairly apportioned and that the federal funds be distributed using an accurate census.