NEW YORK — A Republican redistricting expert advocated for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census to give an electoral edge to whites and Republicans, opponents of the move alleged in a court filing Thursday.
The filing in Manhattan federal court said a trove of newly discovered documents revealed that Thomas Hofeller, a longtime Republican gerrymandering guru, played a key role in pushing the Trump administration to include a citizenship question on the census for the first time since 1950.
Lawyers for opponents of adding the question said the files, found on Hofeller’s computer drives after he died last year, also showed that he contributed vital language to a Justice Department letter used to justify the question on the grounds that it was needed to protect minority voting rights.
In reality, the lawyers argued, the documents show the census change is part of a wider Republican effort to restrict the political power of Democrats and Latino communities.
“The new evidence reveals that Dr. Thomas Hofeller, the longtime Republican redistricting specialist, played a significant role in orchestrating the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Decennial Census in order to create a structural electoral advantage for, in his own words, ‘Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,’ and that defendants obscured his role through affirmative misrepresentations,” the filing said.
The change, announced in spring 2018, seems poised for approval by the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in April and is likely to rule by July.
States, cities and rights groups had sued in New York and elsewhere, arguing that the question would suppress the count of immigrants and strengthen congressional representation and funding for areas where mostly Republicans reside. States with large numbers of immigrants tend to vote Democratic.
Lawyers for President Donald Trump’s administration say the commerce secretary has wide discretion to design the census questionnaire.
On Thursday, lawyers for groups including the American Civil Liberties Union said that the files show that a Justice Department official and a transition official for President Donald Trump testified falsely by hiding Hofeller’s role in asking for the question. They asked U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman to issue sanctions or consider finding individuals in contempt.
Furman gave the Justice Department until Monday to respond. An official with the department declined to comment on the record.
Furman set a hearing in the case for June 5.
Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s voting rights project and a lawyer who argued against adding the citizenship question before the Supreme Court, said documents found after Hofeller’s death last year revealed the administration’s “goal was to dilute the voting power of minority communities. That’s literally the diametric opposite of what the administration has been saying all along.”
It’s not yet clear if the Hofeller documents might affect the pending Supreme Court case.
“We are considering all options right now,” Ho said.
The Supreme Court’s usual practice is to take a preliminary vote after argument, and a draft majority opinion would then circulate among the justices.
The court typically bases its rulings on the evidence that was before the trial judge. But the justices could make an exception if they conclude that the U.S. misled Furman about Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s purpose in adding the question to the census, overriding the Census Bureau’s own recommendation. The Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department.
“For the first time, we have concrete evidence of what that motive may have been, which is not to protect minority voting rights but to dilute them,” said Ho. “The newly discovered evidence is directly relevant to the issue of pretext, which is one of the issues that’s before the Supreme Court right now.”
The Hofeller documents cited by lawyers were discovered when his estranged daughter found four external computer hard drives and 18 thumb drives in her father’s Raleigh, North Carolina, home after his death last summer.
The New York Times reported that she contacted Common Cause, which had recently sued in state court to challenge North Carolina’s legislative districts, which had been drawn by Hofeller.
Furman, the federal judge, ruled in January that the question could not be included on the census, saying fewer people would respond to the census and that the process used to add it was faulty.
Besides the citizenship question, the Supreme Court also is expected to rule within weeks whether North Carolina and Maryland can set limits for the first time on drawing districts for partisan advantage.
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.