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Federal Judge Denies Request To Change Legal Team For Potential Citizenship Question


We have news of another twist in the legal battle over the citizenship question the Trump administration wants to add to the 2020 census. The administration had asked federal judges to allow the Justice Department to form a new legal team to defend the push for the question, and now, a federal judge in New York has issued an order denying that request.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang is back with us once again on the latest developments. Hey, Hansi.


SHAPIRO: What did the judge say in this order?

WANG: Well, the judge is denying this request for 11 Justice Department attorneys from - to withdraw from the citizenship question lawsuits in New York. And the reason - one of the reasons he said he's denying this request is that the Justice Department gave no reason for why these Justice Department attorneys want to withdraw from this case at a time when this legal battle is still ongoing. He said that the Justice Department's request was, quote, "patently deficient" and that there is an urgency here to resolve all this uncertainty over the 2020 census, the citizenship question - whether or not it will be on the census. And that urgency has only grown over time - and that if these attorneys want to withdraw from this case, each of them need to submit sworn statements to explain exactly why they want to leave and confirm that they'll comply with any court orders going forward.

He is allowing two attorneys to leave. But this is attorney one, who has already left the Justice Department, and one is already no longer with the civil division, which has been handling this case. But the judge said he wants to have - he wants to see the reasoning here.

SHAPIRO: Well, you say the judge says they have not given a reason. But do you know anything about why the Trump administration wanted to switch out the lawyers on this case?

WANG: The Trump administration has also not given an official reason of why they want to switch out these lawyers, and it's coming at a time where there are very high stakes here. The Supreme Court has rejected the Trump administration's reason for adding the citizenship question - to supposedly better enforce the Voting Rights Act. This question has been blocked, but the administration is now still trying to find a way. We're expecting any day now some information about this strategy.

In the meantime, they're trying to change their legal team. And some former Justice Department attorneys I've talked to said they're worried that this is a sign that career Justice Department attorneys may be feeling that they can't make any legal arguments going forward without violating ethical and professional standards as lawyers.

SHAPIRO: The judge who issued this order is also reviewing allegations of a cover-up involving the citizenship question. What can you tell us about that?

WANG: These are allegations involving a Justice Department official, as well as a former adviser to the commerce secretary, who oversees the Census Bureau and approved adding this question. These two officials allegedly, the plaintiffs argue here, gave misleading statements or lied during court testimony - out-of-court testimony before the trial. And this all became - got uncovered, plaintiffs arguing after GOP redistricting strategist documents revealed that a possible reason for adding the citizenship question was to give a political advantage to Republicans and non-Hispanic white people. We'll see how these allegations play out in New York going forward.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thanks a lot.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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