Democratic lawmakers believe they have uncovered another example of previously-hidden political calculus driving the Trump administration’s decision to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census.
But with the Supreme Court poised to rule on the question’s validity this week, it remains unclear whether the latest string of revelations will have any bearing on whether the question is asked .
James Uthmeier, a former top adviser to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, told the House Oversight Committee in closed-door interview that he had “sought advice” from John Baker, someone the committee Democrats say has “argued that ‘the citizenship question is necessary to collect the data for a redistricting of House seats that excludes aliens from the calculation.’”
Baker is now the third voice in the administration’s ear arguing that the question is critical for changing the way congressional districts are drawn – from a count of the entire population to a count of only those eligible to vote.
Ross, however, has maintained that he added the question to assist the Justice Department in enforcing the Voting Rights Act – an idea he and his aides planted in the department’s thought process.
“Mr. Uthmeier’s discussion with Mr. Baker marks the third individual espousing similar views that had contact with Trump Administration or Transition Team officials regarding the addition of a citizenship question,” the committee Democrats wrote.
Uthmeier ultimately wrote a briefing memorandum – which has not been made public but is discussed in general terms in court documents – for Ross. “Mr. Uthmeier later hand-delivered a copy of that memo” to the Justice Department official who later made the formal request that Ross include the question.
The other two individuals who made the apportionment case to the administration, the memo explains, were “Republican gerrymandering expert Thomas Hofeller, who advised the Transition Team on adding a citizenship question after concluding that the question “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” It also includes former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who discussed the citizenship question with President Donald Trump and his top advisers, and then urged Ross in an email to add a citizenship question to address the “problem” that undocumented immigrants “are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes.”
The Census Bureau’s own experts concluded including a citizenship question on the census would discourage undocumented individuals and other minorities from participating. Advocates for those groups say their absence from the count would disadvantage their communities when government resources are distributed and dilute their constitutionally granted representation in Congress.
Democrats released the transcript of Uthmeier’s testimony as they also filed a 1,000-plus page document outlining their arguments for holding Attorney General William Barr and Ross in contempt of Congress. The House Oversight Committee voted in recent weeks in favor of contempt, and it is unclear when a vote in the full House will take place. House rules permit House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to go to the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group to take legal action on behalf of the House of Representatives. However, a vote on criminal contempt would likely still have to be voted on in the House floor.
Democrats also argued that the Department of Commerce lawyers present blocked Uthmeier from answering “approximately 100 questions from committee staff.” According to Democrats, the lawyers would not allow Uthmeier to answer questions about “his discussions with the White House about the citizenship question” And, lawyers blocked him from answering questions about what Ross told him the intentions were in including a citizenship questions and what was included in Uthmeier’s memo he wrote about the citizenship question.
While the latest revelations may not figure into the Supreme Court’s imminent decision, a federal trial judge in Maryland explained on Monday why he would like to re-open one of three census cases to hear new evidence that the question was motivated by discrimination.
Judge George Hazel explained the Hofeller cache “raises a substantial issue,” and said if the Fourth Circuit appeals court sends the case back to his courtroom, he would re-open the case.
At trial, Hazel issued a split decision, blocking the question from appearing on the census but also finding the plaintiffs had not proven Ross’ decision to add it was made with discriminatory intent. The discriminatory intent aspect is not part of the Supreme Court’s scope, and those challenging the question are hopeful that even if the Supreme Court rules their question may appear, that their case presents different reasons that could continue to be argued in court.
“(It) is becoming difficult to avoid seeing that which is increasingly clear,” Hazel wrote on Monday. “As more puzzle pieces are placed on the mat, a disturbing picture of the decisionmakers’ motives takes shape.”