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Ohio U.S. Senator J.D. Vance Picked To Be Trump's Running Mate

New Justice Department Legal Team Trying To Get Citizenship Question On 2020 Census


The Justice Department is forming a new legal team to try to get a citizenship question onto the 2020 census. The department has not explained why it's switching attorneys at this late date. President Trump continues to push for this question even after the Supreme Court ruled to keep it off for now. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers all things census-related and joins us to discuss these latest developments. Hey there.


SHAPIRO: Who's on this new team of attorneys? What can you tell us about them?

WANG: This is a complete turnover. The Trump administration is asking federal judges to allow them to withdraw a team of about eight attorneys that were involved for months on these cases. These are attorneys who have the background to work on cases involving census issues, and they are stepping down and being replaced by, really, a hodgepodge of different attorneys at the Justice Department with varying different experiences and - policy experiences. And this is very unusual to be happening in the middle of the ongoing litigation about this census question.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, why is this happening now, more than a year after the litigation began?

WANG: The Justice Department has not provided an explanation for this change, and these court papers don't go into any detail about why these attorneys are asking to step away from the cases. But it is happening after an about-face took place just last week. After the Justice Department initially said - days after the Supreme Court ruled to keep this question - is this person a citizen of United States? - blocked from the census forms, Justice Department said, we're ultimately moving forward with printing forms without this question. And then, a day after, President Trump tweeted and signaled that he was not ready to give up on this fight. And it really raises the question now about what was happening and what has happened behind the scenes at the Justice Department.

And I've been talking to former DOJ attorneys who - just trying to get some insight here, and including Nicholas Bagley. He entered the DOJ under President George W. Bush, left under President Obama. And he said he is concerned that to see so many attorneys withdrawing could be a sign of a bigger problem. Let's listen to what he said.

NICHOLAS BAGLEY: When I worked at the Justice Department, I made lots of arguments I didn't agree with. But there comes a point when the arguments you're being asked to make aren't within fair bounds, that are so far beyond the pale that it conflicts with your own ethical responsibilities. And in those extremely rare cases, you can sometimes push back and say, I'm not going to put my name on that brief.

WANG: And to be clear, the lawyers who are asking to leave this team have not said publicly why they're leaving. But Bagley is concerned that DOJ attorneys may be signaling that they are being forced to not protect the rule of law and are, quote, "being used as pawns of the White House."

SHAPIRO: The Supreme Court, as we mentioned, has already ruled to keep the citizenship question off the census, at least for now. So what could they actually do at this point? What are they litigating?

WANG: Well, the Supreme Court did leave open a window of opportunity for the Trump administration to essentially come back to the court and make another case for this citizenship question. The Supreme Court rejected the stated reason for the question but essentially said, you can come up - try and see if you can come up with another reason that would pass muster in the courts.

And just today, U.S. Attorney General William Barr spoke to reporters in South Carolina and said that in the next day or two, we can expect a little bit more clarity on what exactly is the Trump administration's strategy going forward. But the thing to keep in mind here is that there are lower court rulings here the Supreme Court has left in place that block this question from being added to the 2020 census.

SHAPIRO: And the census forms are already being printed without this citizenship question, right? So is it too late to change it?

WANG: There's a very tight schedule, and there are huge logistical hurdles that the Trump administration is facing right now to try this - try to get this question on. And we are really in the last - the final months of preparation for the 2020 census, which officially starts in rural Alaska in January.

And this is a very tight, tight schedule to meet a constitutional mandate to count every person living in the country, deliver those population counts by the end of next year so that congressional seats can be reapportioned in the beginning of 2021. This is an unforgiving schedule, and we'll have to see how the Trump administration tries to scale these really high odds.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covering the 2020 census for us. Thanks so much.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.