A federal judge in New York on Tuesday denied a bid from the Justice Department to replace the team of lawyers on the census citizenship question case, writing that its request to do so was “patently deficient.”
The department had earlier this week announced its intention to swap out the legal team on the case – without saying exactly why. A person familiar with the matter said the decision was driven in part by frustration among at least some of the career lawyers who had been assigned to the case about how it was being handled, though the department wanted to replace those in both career and political positions.
But U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman denied the formal, legal bid to do so.
“Defendants provide no reasons, let alone ‘satisfactory reasons,’ for the substitution of counsel,” Furman wrote. He also noted that a filing in the case was due from the department in just three days, and that the department had previously pushed for the matter to be moved along quickly.
“If anything, that urgency – and the need for efficient judicial proceedings – has only grown since that time,” Furman wrote.
Furman said the department could refile its request, if it gave “satisfactory reasons” for the attorneys’ withdrawal and promise that the attorneys who had worked the case previously would be available upon request. The judge also asked the department to “file an affidavit providing unequivocal assurances that the substitution of counsel will not delay further litigation of this case (or any future related case).”
Furman did allow two attorneys, who had previously left the Justice Department, to be removed.
The judge’s decision was latest development in the continuing effort by the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
In a ruling late last month, the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s plan to add the question, saying the government had provided a “contrived” reason for wanting the citizenship information.
The Justice and Commerce departments then effectively conceded defeat – but President Donald Trump soon ordered the lawyers to do an about-face and come up with ways to keep the fight alive.
Furman’s move could force the Justice Department to expose more of its messy, internal debates over the Census case. Those attorneys who object to the handling of it might proceed without signing briefs, serving up a regular, public reminder of how fraught the case has become internally. The department might also choose to lay out more detailed reasons for wanting the attorneys off in a subsequent request.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the judge’s decision.