ORLANDO, Fla. – As lawyers in a court hearing argued over what would happen if the U.S. Census Bureau blew a deadline to turn over data used for redrawing congressional districts, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators on Tuesday introduced a bill pushing the deadline into next year, even though a previous effort hasn't gone anywhere in the Senate.
During a federal court hearing on whether to extend the 2020 census by a month, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, asked government attorneys to explain what harm there would be if the Census Bureau didn't turn in the figures by a Dec. 31 deadline required by law.
Koh is weighing arguments between government attorneys who say the head count of every U.S. resident must finish by the end of September to meet the statutory deadline and attorneys for a coalition of cities and civil rights groups that say the 2020 census should be extended an extra month so that minority communities aren't overlooked, leading to an inaccurate count.
Supporters of an extension also say the extra time is needed to make up for hurdles from the pandemic, wildfires in the West and hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. The once-a-decade census helps determine the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually, as well as how many congressional seats each state gets.
Government attorneys told the judge during a virtual hearing that an agency should always to try to comply with the law and that it was up to Congress on whether the numbers would be accepted if they were late. If an extra month were added, it would reduce the amount of time for data processing before the end-of-the-year deadline, said Brad Rosenberg, a government attorney.
“You give with one hand. You take with the other," Rosenberg said.
But Melissa Sherry, an attorney for the coalition of cities and civil rights groups, said agencies frequently miss deadlines and it doesn't invalidate the work they do.
“Coming up with an accurate count is hard enough in the best of times," Sherry said. “It's not enough to say, ‘Statutory deadline,' and drop the mic and walk out."
Because of a delay by the government in providing documents showing how the decision was made to switch the end of the census from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30, Koh rescheduled a hearing over whether to issue a court order from this week to next week. She also said she planned to extend by a week a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Census Bureau from winding down the 2020 census.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans from Alaska, joined U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, in introducing a bill that would prohibit the head count from ending before Oct. 31. The legislation also would extend the deadline for turning in the figures used for redrawing congressional districts from Dec. 31 to the end of next April.
The Democratic-controlled House passed a similar measure in coronavirus-relief legislation, but the Republican-controlled Senate failed to act on it. The inaction in the Senate coincided with a directive from President Donald Trump that tried to exclude people in the country illegally from the numbers used in redrawing congressional districts. Last week, a three-judge panel in New York blocked the directive, saying it was unlawful.
“For an effort that happens once every ten years, with impacts that last for the next ten years, this is far too important to not get right," Murkowski said.
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