Bill and Wilbur’s excellent adventure: census scandal (Updated)

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The House Oversight Committee voted on Wednesday to hold Attorney General William “Coverup” Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to turn over documents about the administration’s decision to a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. House panel votes to hold attorney general, commerce secretary in contempt over census probe, the next step toward a court battle:

The nearly party-line vote of 24-to-15 came hours after President Trump asserted executive privilege to shield the materials from Congress. Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), who has accused Trump of impeachable acts, was the lone Republican to join Democrats on the contempt vote.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department had warned the committee that if it moved toward holding Barr in contempt, the attorney general would ask Trump to assert privilege to protect the materials. The department revealed the assertion in a letter to the committee, which called the contempt vote “unnecessary and premature.”

In the Justice Department’s view, the privilege assertion undercuts the contempt finding because it prevents the attorney general from turning over materials lawmakers had subpoenaed.

Ahead of the vote, Donald Trump took out his money’s paw talisman and recited the magical incantations to invoke “executive privilege.” He will eventually learn that it does not actually work this way.

With the new development, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) … questioned why Trump had waited to assert executive privilege on the brink of a contempt vote, given that the subpoenas in question were issued two months ago.

“This begs the question,” Cummings said. “What is being hidden?”

Wednesday’s developments marked a further escalation in the fight between House Democrats and the Republican administration over the investigatory powers of Congress that is playing out in multiple committees and the courts.

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If the Oversight Committee contempt resolution is approved by the full House, Cummings would be empowered to ask a federal court to order Barr and Ross to comply with subpoenas that sought documents related to the 2020 Census decision and testimony from a senior Justice Department official.

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A key issue in the challenges to the citizenship question is how it came to be added. Ross originally told Congress that his decision to add it came solely in response to a December 2017 request from the Justice Department, but lawsuits later produced emails showing that Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, had been pushing for the question for months before that.

On Wednesday, Cummings said evidence showed that Ross was pushing for the addition of the question at the urging of the White House.

In March of this year, Democrats on the Oversight Committee grilled Ross about the citizenship extensively, with several asking whether he had lied under oath, and one demanding his resignation.

The committee also met with Gore that month on the matter, but Cummings said he refused to answer more than 150 questions, citing ongoing litigation.

Three federal judges have struck down the census question, saying Ross’s actions in adding it were in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

The Supreme Court heard the case April 23. Evidence in the case concluded with oral arguments that day, and it appeared that the conservative majority seemed inclined to agree with the government that the decision to add the question was within the authority of the commerce secretary.

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Last month, new evidence emerged suggesting that the citizenship question was crafted specifically to give an electoral advantage to Republicans and whites.

The evidence was found in the files of the prominent Republican redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller after his death in August. According to lawyers challenging the question, it reveals that Hofeller “played a significant role in orchestrating the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Decennial Census to create a structural electoral advantage for, in his own words, ‘Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.’ ”

The lawyers also argued that Trump administration officials purposely obscured Hofeller’s role in court proceedings.

Aaron Blake of the Post explains The census is a sleeping giant of a potential Trump administration scandal:

On Wednesday, the Trump administration actually asserted executive privilege.

And the subject on which it has been invoked — the census — is a sleeping giant of a potential scandal.

Ever since the Trump administration moved last year to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, questions have been asked about the true motivation. The stated reason is that it is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, but that has never been a huge point of emphasis for the Republican Party. Indeed, GOP officials have worked to dismantle the VRA in recent years.

And as we’ve found out over the last few months, there are reasons to doubt those initial explanations. Exactly where the idea to add the question came from has been obscured, including apparently by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and now evidence exists that its earliest proponents may have had other, very political motivations.

The problem with the census kerfuffle is that it, well, involves the census. The second problem is that it involves gerrymandering and complex calculations that most people inside political circles in Washington don’t fully understand. You layer those two things, and it’s a recipe for people’s eyes glazing over.

But, the inclusion of a citizenship question is the kind of thing that could be used to cement the GOP’s already very strong advantage when it comes to the composition of the districts we use to elect our representatives. And that’s a system the GOP has already gamed to great effect.

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What adding a citizenship question would potentially do for Republicans is twofold: 1) It could dissuade undocumented immigrants from responding (for fear of disclosing their status to the government), which would dilute their representation and transfer it to areas that are more likely to be Republican-leaning. And 2) It would give Republicans a potential game-changing tool to rejigger maps in the future. The GOP would very much like to draw maps according to citizen voting-age population, rather than total population, because that benefits more rural areas. That’s questionable from a constitutional standpoint, but without a citizenship question to give it the data it would need, Republicans can’t even really attempt it.

Which is where the story starts getting interesting. Two weeks ago, we learned that the daughter of a recently deceased Republican redistricting guru, Thomas Hofeller, had been sorting through his files and discovered evidence that he was more involved in this process than we believed. That’s significant, because this same consultant had also conducted a 2015 study showing the political benefit Republicans could glean from drawing districts according to citizen voting-age population.

The revelation is not a smoking gun; Hofeller was ubiquitous when it came to this kind of thing — I spoke with him frequently while reporting on redistricting early in this decade — and the idea that he would be involved on such a topic in a Republican administration makes complete sense.

The issue is whether his lobbying for this change and apparent involvement in drafting the Justice Department’s VRA justification obscured what happened behind closed doors. If he or anyone else was pitching this to any part of the administration as a way for Republicans to gain politically, that’s hugely significant. And intriguingly, plaintiffs in a federal-court case say the structure of the Justice Department request for the citizenship question mirrors Hofeller’s 2015 study.

There are other reasons to be suspicious. Ross, whose department oversees the census, testified in March 2018 that the Justice Department “initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question.” Emails released later, though, showed that he himself had pushed for its inclusion as early as May 2017 — seven months before the Justice Department’s formal request. And Ross, in that May 2017 email, referred to “my months old request that we include the citizenship question.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave Ross four Pinocchios . . . for his sworn testimony.

How this situation might come to a head is the question. Despite lower courts blocking the use of the citizenship question, the Supreme Court in oral arguments sounded as though it favored the administration. It is expected to issue its ruling by the end of the month.

Assuming it upholds the question, it’s up to House Democrats to press the case — including by applying pressure on the administration and winning legal battles over access to documents and officials such as Ross, whom Democrats are threatening to hold in contempt, along with Attorney General William P. Barr.

Wednesday’s maneuvering was a major development in that ongoing battle. It’s worth tuning in for the rest of it.

The other part of this scandal is the U.S. Supreme Court. The 11th hour disclosure of new evidence that the courts were mislead by government witnesses and evidence not disclosed should result in the census case being remanded back to the trial court for further adjudication.

UPDATE: Challengers of census citizenship question ask Supreme Court to put off ruling:

Organizations challenging the decision to put a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form asked the Supreme Court on Wednesday night to put off a ruling on whether the Trump administration may do so.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union said that if justices are not prepared to affirm lower court rulings keeping the question off the census form, they should send the issue back to a lower court to consider new allegations that the question was added at the behest of a Republican operative to benefit the party and white voters in general.

“If ever there were a case that should be decided on the basis of a true and complete record, it is this one,” ACLU lawyer Dale Ho wrote in the brief. “Even an appearance that the government has manipulated the census for partisan and racially discriminatory purposes would undermine public confidence in our representative democracy.”

But the conservative majority on the court, which is there to protect the privilege of white male patriarchy and plutocratic rule, may decide the case for purely political reasons to advantage Republicans and ignore this new damning evidence. And this would destroy the little remaining credibility of the Supreme Court as a fair and just impartial arbiter of the facts and the law. The court will have been exposed as politicized and a partisan arm of the Republican Party.

After Mitch McConnell destroyed the Congress and Donald Trump destroyed the executive branch, John Roberts and his cohorts destroying the credibility of the federal judiciary will sweep away the last remaining branch of government. We will have been rendered a democracy in name only.




1 COMMENT

  1. The solution to the census issue is easy. Everyone self identifies their own race and ethnicity and the census people cannot challenge anyone’s self identities. It should be absolutely the same with citizenship. Simply, every single person and family ahould say they are citizens. Period. Likewise the census people cannot challenge that self identification, no matter what they observe or see in a digital response.

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