Thursday, October 5, 2017

Rule of Law Clinic Sues Commerce Department Over Census Records

Students from the Rule of Law Clinic filed a federal lawsuit on October 5, 2017, under the Freedom of Information Act to compel the Commerce Department to produce records it has unlawfully withheld about preparations for the 2020 Census. The clinic is representing the NAACP, the NAACP Connecticut State Conference, and the NAACP Boston Branch (“NAACP”) in this case.

The lawsuit comes after the Government Accountability Office labeled the 2020 Census a “high risk program,” due to disruptions caused by a federal hiring freeze, the abrupt resignation of the head of the Census Bureau, and huge budgetary shortfalls, according to the clinic.

In June, the NAACP requested documents relating to the Census Bureau’s plans to mitigate these risks. After having failed to produce a single record for months, the Bureau responded this week with an inadequate production that did not address the majority of the NAACP's requests, according to the clinic.  

Under the Constitution, the federal government is required to conduct a decennial census. The government uses Census data to apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, draw legislative districts, enforce voting rights, build schools, and allocate more than $400 billion in federal funds.

Those involved in the lawsuit explained that flaws in the next Census can have serious effects on the country, particularly to its most underrepresented and vulnerable citizens.

“The Census Bureau routinely undercounts communities of color, young children, home renters, low-income persons, and rural residents,” explained Bradford M. Berry '88, NAACP General Counsel, “but all signs indicate that the 2020 Census will be a particularly egregious failure on this front. Is this Administration genuinely committed to a full and fair census of all persons in this country?”

“When the government withholds resources from the Census Bureau, communities of color suffer,” added Tanisha M. Sullivan, President of the NAACP Boston Branch. “Because when the Bureau does not receive the funding and staffing support it needs, there is likely decreased outreach to the communities with the least amount of access.”

Scot Esdaile, President of the NAACP’s Connecticut State Conference, said “If we aren’t counted, then we don’t count—our votes are diluted, our schools go underfunded, and our community needs are ignored.”

Students from the clinic also noted that it was “particularly distressing” that the government was being obscure about the Bureau’s planned digitization efforts.

“How is the Bureau going to reach citizens without access to the Internet?” asked Charlotte Schwartz '19, a law student intern in the Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School. “Are there protections against cybersecurity threats? The public has a right to know.”

The Rule of Law Clinic focuses on maintaining U.S. rule of law and human rights commitments in four areas: national security, antidiscrimination, climate change, and democracy promotion. In addition to its work on the travel ban cases, the Clinic has also recently worked on issues related to the Administration’s announced withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, redistricting, and discrimination against Muslim groups.