Madelyn Kumar

The Yale Law School Rule of Law Clinic, Jenner & Block and the NAACP have filed a federal lawsuit calling into question the government’s preparations for the upcoming 2020 census.

On Jan. 29, a judge ruled that the case could move forward with the discovery phase. The Yale Law School clinic, or ROLC — which aims to maintain rule of law in the United States and human rights in national security, anti-discrimination, climate change and democracy promotion — filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in March 2018. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Prince George’s County, the NAACP Prince George’s County Branch, two county residents and the NAACP. According to Jeff Zalesin LAW ’19, a law student who works at the ROLC, the U.S. Census Bureau has always experienced difficulties with undercounting communities of color.

Zalesin said that the bureau has redesigned the 2020 census and will implement new technologies, leading the groups to sue.

“The Census Bureau has placed a lot of reliance on their ability to collect census responses online without having the infrastructure to make up for any deficits in the results of their online program through old-fashioned hard work that has worked in the past,” Zalesin said. “There will be fewer people knocking on your doors if you don’t respond and fewer brick-and-mortar offices throughout the country hiring, training and supervising Census staff.”

During the last decade, the government has canceled field tests for its digitization initiative, leading the NAACP and ROLC to believe that their new technologies are not ready for the field.

The Census Bureau has a legal obligation to conduct an accurate census that the NAACP, a group advocating for racial equality, feels the bureau may not meet with the reduction of traditional means of information gathering that will lessen participation from communities of color.

“The Census must not serve as a mechanism for diluting the political power of African-American communities and depriving them of their fair share of federal resources for an entire decade,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a press release. “We are prepared to fight against any plan that effectively turns the Census into another form of voter suppression and economic disempowerment in our communities.”

Rachel Brown ’15 LAW ’20, who works at the clinic, said the census has three important areas of impact. She clarified that the census is used for apportionment of the House of Representatives, redistricting of state legislature voting districts and allocation of federal funding. Brown continued that the Census would benefit from increased outreach to hard-to-count communities, more preparation for cybersecurity risks, and increased field efforts.

The lawsuit will now enter the discovery phase, and the ROLC will be focused on receiving and reviewing information to help them understand the preparations and funding of the Census Bureau.

“The judge in Maryland [U.S. District Judge Paul Grimm] issued an opinion that didn’t give us everything we wanted but allowed us to continue to the discovery phase of litigation, where we will prepare to gather more information through a court-supervised process about what exactly is going on at the Census Bureau, especially with respect to if they have the resources that they need to conduct a Constitutionally-adequate census,” Zalesin said.

April 1, 2020, is set to be the next census day.

Samuel Turner | samuel.turner@yale.edu