Justice Department Changes Legal Team Behind Census Citizenship Question Case

The Justice Department announced a major shakeup Sunday in its team of lawyers involved in the ongoing legal battle over the citizenship question the Trump administration wants to add to the 2020 census forms.

“The Department of Justice is shifting these matters to a new team of Civil Division lawyers going forward,” said DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupec in a written statement.

The new team is made up of both career and political appointee attorneys, including lawyers from the Consumer Protection Branch, a DOJ official tells NPR’s Carrie Johnson.

The Justice Department did not provide an explanation for the change or identify on the record which attorneys will no longer be working on the cases related to the census. But more details are expected Monday in court filings.

The move comes as the Trump administration continues its search for a new way to include the question — “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” — on forms for the upcoming national head count after the Supreme Court ruled last month to keep it off for now.

Days after the Supreme Court rejected the administration’s stated reason for adding the question, the Justice Department announced early last week that printing had started for paper census forms that do not include the question.

It looked as if a more than year-long legal battle was winding down. Justice Department attorneys, including U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, had repeatedly emphasized in court the importance of finalizing the 2020 census forms by June 30, so that the paper questionnaires can be printed in time.

But tweets by President Trump signaled that he was determined to continue pushing for the question.

“We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question,” Trump tweeted on July 3.

The president’s comments caught the attention of U.S. District Judge George Hazel, who called for an emergency hearing by phone last week as part of the Maryland-based lawsuits. During the hearing, Hazel asked Joshua Gardner, a career DOJ attorney, to confirm again the administration’s plans after noting that Gardner has indicated just the day before that the administration was moving forward with printing forms without the citizenship question.

“The tweet this morning was the first I had heard of the president’s position on the issue,” said Gardner, who had stepped away from a planned vacation to join the teleconference according to a transcript. “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.”

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Trump said that his administration has “a couple of avenues” for getting a citizenship question onto the census.

“Our Attorney General is doing a fantastic job, in many ways, and I think he’s got it under control,” Trump said.

In her written statement, Kupec noted that the DOJ attorneys involved in the census cases “have consistently demonstrated the highest professionalism, integrity, and skill inside and outside the courtroom.”

“The Attorney General appreciates that service, thanks them for their work on these important matters, and is confident that the new team will carry on in the same exemplary fashion as the cases progress,” Kupec added.

NPR’s Carrie Johnson contributed reporting.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.