Manhattan judge denies DOJ's bid to swap census case lawyers

Cheryl Sanders
July 11, 2019

A federal judge rejected the Trump administration's effort to change its legal team in the census citizenship question case, ruling Tuesday that the government gave no reason why it wanted to pull the lawyers who've argued the case for months.

Last week, the Trump administration signaled it would explore a "path forward" to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census, despite a Supreme Court decision last month that appeared to have effectively blocked the government from going ahead with the controversial change, which critics say is created to expand the political power of the Republican Party.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, of the southern district of NY, scolded the Justice Department on Tuesday for its failure to offer "satisfactory reasons for the lawyers' withdrawal, as required by local rules".

The Justice Department is replacing the legal team that's working on the issue by putting in a new team of career and politically appointed attorneys.

The justice department had announced the changes in a three-paragraph notification that argued the replacements wouldn't "cause any disruption in this matter".

The judge said local rules for federal courts in New York City require that any attorney requesting to leave a case provide satisfactory reasons for withdrawing.

Furman denied the request for all but two of the lawyers - Brett Shumate and Alice La Cour - who have departed from the Department of Justice and the Civil Division. He said the government has the right to ask a citizenship question, but it needs to provide an appropriate explanation for adding such a question. "We can not ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given [by the Trump administration]", the majority ruling said at the time.

Furman said the urgency to resolve legal claims in the case and the need for efficient judicial proceedings had only grown.

'I agree with him that the Supreme Court decision was wrong, ' Barr said in reference to Trump's stance. It also hinted at the possibility that administration officials feared the lawyers would no longer be viewed as credible by judges presiding over the case.

All of the other lawyers must submit an affidavit that provides "satisfactory reasons" for leaving the case, Furman said, citing a rule from the U.S. District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of NY. Some saw the decision to replace the attorneys as a sign that the Trump administration was treading on shaky legal ground and did not want to make further representations to the court.

The Department of Justice said on July 7 that it was shifting legal teams. "That's why they're fighting the census", she said.

At one point, the Justice Department succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to block plans to depose Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

"But, part of doing it right is asking basic questions, including, 'Are you a citizen?'"

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