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Federal Judge In California Orders Census Work To Press On For Now

A pamphlet with 2020 census information is included in a box of food to be distributed by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank last month in Paramount. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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By Hansi Lo Wang | NPR

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The Trump administration must, for now, stop winding down in-person counting efforts for the 2020 census, a federal judge in California ordered Saturday, while a legal fight over the shortened schedule for the national head count continues.

The temporary restraining order issued by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California comes after challengers led by the National Urban League filed an emergency request as part of a federal lawsuit -- both of which cite NPR's reporting. The order is expected to remain in effect until a court hearing is held on Sept. 17 for the plaintiffs' request for a court order that would require counting to continue through the end of October.

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A coalition that includes civil rights groups and local governments, as well as the Navajo Nation and the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, is trying to force the Census Bureau to abandon a last-minute schedule change that cuts counting a month short to end on Sept. 30.

The bureau had previously been working towards ending all counting efforts on Oct. 31 to make up for delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Without that extra time, the challengers are concerned the bureau will not be able to adequately conduct the constitutionally mandated count of every person living in the country, especially among people of color, immigrants and other historically undercounted groups.

After publicly supporting extensions to the census timeline, the Trump administration mysteriously made an about-face in August when the bureau announced it was speeding up its efforts in order to deliver the first batch of numbers to the president by year's end. That was even after the administration asked Congress to push back legal deadlines for reporting census results, which are used to determine the distribution of political representation and federal funding among states and local communities for the next decade.

A day after NPR reported that the bureau was ending door-knocking efforts in some areas as early as Sept. 18, Justice Department attorneys confirmed in a court filing that the bureau has "already begun taking steps to conclude field operations," while warning that any court order "could not be implemented at this point without significant costs and burdens" to the bureau.

The bureau has already started letting go of some of its temporary workers in areas that have "completed their work," Al Fontenot, associate director for the 2020 census, confirmed in a sworn statement filed with the court late Friday in California.

Fontenot also emphasized, wishing to be "crystal clear," that if a court were to order counting to continue past Sept. 30, the bureau would not be able to meet the Dec. 31 deadline for the first set of census numbers. He noted that the bureau "simply cannot shorten" the time left for processing census results again, after it has already been truncated to about three months.

Fontenot added that the possibility of "continual, conflicting, and evolving court orders" is "particularly troubling."

"While Census Bureau staff have demonstrated considerable resilience and flexibility during this difficult year, some certainty as to the amount of time available to conclude data collection and post processing will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome," Fontenot said.

In a similar federal lawsuit in Maryland, attorneys for another group of challengers are set to appear virtually for a hearing on Sept. 21 about their request to block the administration from ending census efforts earlier than previously scheduled.

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