A federal judge on Friday rejected the Trump administration’s request to delay a lawsuit against Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for defying congressional subpoenas as part of a probe into officials’ handling of the 2020 census.
U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss in Washington, D.C., said in a status conference that with the census approaching he recognizes the urgency of the case from the House Oversight and Reform Committee and has set an expedited schedule for both sides to brief the court.
“I think it’s important to get going with the process,” said Moss, who was appointed by former President Obama.
The schedule that Moss set for the case would have both sides briefing and arguing before the court by the end of January.
The Democratic-controlled Oversight panel sued Barr and Ross late last month, accusing them of continuing to defy document requests in the months since the House voted to hold the two Cabinet members in contempt over the census dispute.
Douglas Letter, the House’s general counsel, told the court that the committee has an urgent need to get the documents in order to decide whether it needs to legislate in order to protect the census against further political interference.
Democrats have weighed taking legislative steps after the Supreme Court blocked the administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to next year’s surveys.
“We feel that we are frankly in a dire emergency,” Letter told the judge. “We have a situation where we are up against extremely suspicious circumstances.”
Counting for the 2020 census begins in April.
Letter said that the Trump administration had asserted executive privilege over thousands of documents and had refused to negotiate for a release of them in the months since the contempt vote.
Moss reprimanded the Trump administration during the hearing for its intransigence in the dispute with Congress.
Elizabeth Shapiro, an attorney with the DOJ, argued that after the contempt vote the administration could not negotiate with a “gun to our head.”
“I disagree entirely,” said Moss, a former assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration. “There’s nothing that kept you from negotiating at that point.
Moss also took issue with Shapiro pushing back on the scheduling pace recommended by the House, saying that the department needed time to review the thousands of documents in question.
“That should occur before the docs are withheld from Congress,” he said. “That strikes me as a problematic position for the government.”
The Department of Justice had requested that the court suspend the lawsuit until the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in another House lawsuit seeking to compel testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn.
In a motion filed Thursday, the Justice Department argued that an appellate decision in that case “will bind this Court and almost certainly determine whether this Court has the power to hear this case.”
President Trump abandoned his efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census after the Supreme Court rejected his rationale for the move in July.
In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court said that the administration’s explanation that the effort was in response to a request from the Justice Department for voting rights data “seems to have been contrived.”
House Democrats have continued to blast the administration’s handling of the issue.
“Secretary Ross provided false testimony under oath to multiple committees of Congress, mispresented to the American people the reasons for his attempt to add the citizenship questions, and then attempted to continue that false narrative when his actions were challenged in federal court,” the Oversight and Reform Committee wrote in its lawsuit last month. “The Committee has an undeniable interest in understanding the origins and extent of that dishonesty in order to redress the harm it has caused.”