Challenge #3: Legal Challenge to the Citizenship Question

On November 27, 2018, closing arguments wrapped up in a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Census Bureau’s decision to include a citizenship question in the 2020 Census. The federal court case, State of New York et. al. v. U.S. Department of Commerce et. al., was brought forward by the Attorneys General of New York and 16 other states, as well as representatives from seven cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the plaintiffs assert that the decision to include a citizenship question is “unconstitutional and otherwise illegal.”

As a result of this legal challenge, much information surrounding the timing, communications, and justification of the decision to request a citizenship question has emerged. For example, as reported by Tara Bahrampour of the Washington Post, a June 2017 memo penned by Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, indicates that Secretary Ross was considering adding the citizenship question to the 2020 Census when he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in February 2017. This is a particularly noteworthy event because it directly contradicts Ross’ congressional testimony to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee. In March 2018, Secretary Ross told the House committee that he added the question because of a December 2017 request from the Department of Justice.

To provide more clarity to this complex chain of events, we constructed a timeline detailing the course of events, providing a simplified version largely based on reporting by Hansi Lo Wang of National Public Radio (NPR).


  • 2017

    • February

      • Wilbur Ross is confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Secretary of Commerce.

    • May

      • In an e-mail to Secretary Ross, Earl Comstock, Director, Office of Policy and Strategic Planning at the U.S. Department of Commerce, said “We need to work with Justice to get them to request that citizenship be added back as a census question.”

    • July

      • In an e-mail exchange between Secretary Ross and former Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, Kobach indicated he discussed adding the citizenship question “at the direction of Steve Bannon,” President Trump’s former chief strategist.

    • August

      • In an e-mail to Comstock, Secretary Ross asked: “Where is the DoJ in their analysis? If they still have not come to a conclusion please let me know your contact person and I will call the AG.”

    • November

      • In an e-mail to the General Counsel of the Department of Commerce, Secretary Ross noted: "Census is about to begin translating the questions into multiple languages. We are out of time. Please set up a call for me tomorrow with whoever is the responsible person at Justice. We must have this resolved."

    • December

      • The U.S. Department of Justice formally requests the Department of Commerce consider adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

  • 2018

    • March

      • Secretary Ross testifies to U.S. House Ways and Means Committee that his decision to add a citizenship question was because of the Department of Justice request initiated in December 2017.

    • April

      • A lawsuit is filed in several U.S. District Courts by cities and states challenging the inclusion of the citizenship question on the 2020 Census.  

    • June

      • As reported by Hansi Lo Wang of NPR, Secretary Ross issues a memo, as part of the New York et al. legal challenge, indicating that Ross “seeded the Justice Department’s request for a citizenship question.”

    • November

      • The State of New York et. al. v. U.S. Department of Commerce et. al. court case commences on November 5 and concludes on November 27.

  • 2019

    • February

      • The U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether Secretary Ross can be deposed to clarify the underlying circumstances of his decision to request a citizenship question.

        • More information forthcoming on this topic.

  • 2020

    • April 1, 2020 Census Day



For additional background on this topic, see:

Jason Jurjevich