The Trump administration must face sanctions for its failure to turn over hundreds of documents in a case that successfully challenged its attempts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, a federal court in New York ruled.
A coalition of states, other governmental entities, and nongovernmental organizations challenged Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to add a question about citizenship status to the census. They argued the question would jeopardize the count’s accuracy by significantly deterring participation in immigrant communities, due to concerns about how the federal government would use this information.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted the plaintiffs an injunction barring the question, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it. The justices found that the administration’s stated rationale for the question, that it was necessary to help enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was pretextual.
The NGO plaintiffs obtained evidence suggesting that Ross’ true motive was to facilitate redistricting strategies to benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic whites, and that the administration failed to turn over hundreds of relevant documents during discovery.
The district court partially granted the NGO plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions, ordering the administration to pay a portion of the groups’ trial fees and costs.
But the court declined to impose sanctions for the NGO plaintiffs’ most serious allegations, which claimed that the defendants concealed evidence and that two witnesses—Mark Neuman, an outside advisor to Secretary Ross, and John Gore, then the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights—provided false testimony.
“To be clear, that conclusion is not based on a finding that Plaintiffs’ troubling allegations are wrong,” Judge Jesse M. Furman said, but rather because even if these allegations are true it didn’t affect the outcome of the case.
“Nor will the Court invite further discovery in order to determine exactly who did what and when with respect to the decision to add a citizenship question to the decennial census,” the court said. “If there is more to the story, principles of judicial restraint counsel in favor of letting it be uncovered and told somewhere else,” it added.
But sanctions are warranted for the administration’s “admitted failure to review and produce hundreds of documents that should have been disclosed prior to trial— a failure that may well have been inadvertent, but is nevertheless unacceptable for any litigant, and particularly for the Department of Justice,” the court said.
The case is New York v. Dep’t of Commerce, S.D.N.Y., No. 1:18-cv-02921, 5/21/20.