California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Photo: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s plan to ask about citizenship status during the 2020 census are being allowed by federal judges to move forward, dealing a blow to the federal government.

Why it matters: As the suits to remove the question make their way through courts in New York, Maryland and California, they could complicate preparation for the United States' constitutionally-mandated nationwide decennial count.

The key arguments: The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, said that reinstating the question, which hasn’t been asked on the nation's standard census form since 1950, would provide better citizenship data to enforce the Voting Rights Act against racial discrimination.

  • But critics described the administration’s move as a ploy that would discourage non-citizens from responding, pointing to President Trump’s anti-immigration sentiments and policies. A less accurate count, they added, would affect apportioned seats in the House and and could skew the distribution of federal funding and other grants.

The backdrop: Government emails and memos disclosed as part of one of the ongoing suits in New York revealed glaring contradicting accounts of initial statements made by officials on how they reached the decision to include the question.

  • Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross delivered sworn testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in March, telling lawmakers that the request for the question was initiated by the Justice Department in December 2017.
  • But the recent disclosure of internal records shows that senior administration officials, including former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, had begun pushing for the question just months after taking office.
Where the cases now stand

New York: U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman cleared the way for two related suits to move forward in July with a potential trial that could begin in October. He rejected the government's argument that the court lacks jurisdiction on the census issue, writing that there’s evidence the administration acted in "bad faith."

  • One of the suits was filed in April by dozens of localities. In June, advocacy groups, including the New York Immigration Coalition, filed another challenge.

California: A San Francisco federal court judge last week rejected the federal government’s dismissal motions against two related lawsuits. A potential trial there would begin in January.

  • California was the first state to challenge the administration’s decision. Four other cities in the state later joined. The other suit is led by the D.C-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on behalf of the City of San Jose, California and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

Maryland: U.S. District Judge George Hazel, who allowed a suit to proceed this week, has not issued a timeline for when it will be argued in court.

  • The plaintiffs — individuals from Maryland, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Nevada — are being represented the law firm of former Attorney General Eric Holder.
  • Meanwhile, Hazel has given the government by the end of this week to file a motion to dismiss a similar suit led by a Texas-based group.

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