DOJ rejects call for census docs, teeing up contempt vote

DOJ rejects call for census docs, teeing up contempt vote
© Greg Nash

The Department of Justice (DOJ) informed Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee that it would not be meeting their request for additional documents regarding the administration's push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The response comes despite the committee’s threats it would schedule a vote to hold Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrThe Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck Supreme Court set to deliver ruling on census citizenship question Trump: 'I think I win the election easier' if Democrats launch impeachment proceedings MORE in contempt if the subpoenaed information wasn’t provided by 5 p.m. Thursday.

In a letter written to committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsThis week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Supreme Court set to deliver ruling on census citizenship question House Oversight Committee to vote on authorizing subpoena for Kellyanne Conway MORE (D-Md.), Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd alleged the “committee's action is premature,” adding DOJ officials “are disappointed by the committee's mischaracterization of the Department's continued and ongoing efforts to accommodate the committee's oversight interests.”

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Boyd argued the documents subpoenaed are protected by attorney-client privilege, adding the agency has worked to accommodate the panel’s requests by providing relevant documents and made senior officials available for transcribed interviews with committee staffers.

The DOJ and Democratic-controlled committee have been at odds over the push for certain documents and the panel’s call for John Gore, a top official in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, to testify without a department lawyer present — a move the agency said is unprecedented.

Barr instructed Gore not to comply with the committee’s request unless the committee agrees to allow the presence of DOJ counsel.

“Despite the Department's significant and ongoing efforts to accommodate the Committee's requests, your June 3 letter alleges lack of compliance by the Attorney General based on (1) the Committee's dissatisfaction with the Department's ongoing document production; and (2) the Attorney General's instruction that Mr. Gore not appear before the Committee for a third time, for a deposition, unless the Committee allows him to be accompanied by Department counsel.

"Let us address first the Attorney General's instruction concerning Mr. Gore's appearance,” Boyd wrote.

Boyd said DOJ is amenable to working with and providing information to the panel, but argued their call for the information could interfere with the Supreme Court’s ongoing litigation on the matter.

“The Department remains willing to continue working with the Committee to find a resolution that would balance Congress's ‘legitimate need for information that will help it legislate’ and the Department's ‘legitimate, constitutionally recognized need to keep certain information confidential," he wrote.

“One challenge, of course, has been the Committee's desire to conduct oversight of the Commerce Department's decision to reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 Census while the matter is being actively litigated, rather than waiting a short period of time until the matter is resolved. Nonetheless, as discussed, the Department will continue to produce documents to the Committee as appropriate.”

In addition to issuing a subpoena for Gore in April, the Oversight Committee also issued two separate subpoenas: One requesting the agency's communications on the census question with the White House, the Republican National Committee, the Trump campaign and Congressional lawmakers; and another seeking unredacted internal communications and documents on the addition of the question from Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossSupreme Court set to deliver ruling on census citizenship question Darrell Issa eyes return to Congress Apple seeks to exempt products including iPhone from proposed tariffs MORE.

The Department of Commerce announced the addition of the question on citizenship status on the next census last year, saying it will help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The decision sparked pushback from a number of states, who launched legal challenges to the addition of the question in the courts.

Critics of the decision argue it could deter individuals from responding to the census, which could lead to the population being undercounted. The census is used, in part, to calculate how federal funding is allocated.  

In a letter written to Barr on Tuesday, Cummings said he would hold off on scheduling the contempt vote if the subpoenaed information was provided by Thursday. 

He also pointed to evidence filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in court last week that alleged previously undisclosed actions by a Republican redistricting strategist in getting the citizenship question added to the 2020 census, raising questions about the motivation of the addition.

The Justice Department adamantly denied the allegations, arguing the ACLU’s evidence is an "eleventh hour" attempt to derail the Supreme Court's consideration of the citizenship question.

"This baseless attack on the integrity of the Department and its employees is based on nothing more than fevered speculation and supposed 'new' evidence that, in reality, the plaintiffs have known for months," the Department said. "The study that plaintiffs recovered from the personal belongings of a deceased private citizen played no role in the Department of Justice’s letter recommending reinstatement of a citizenship question to the Census."

Jacqueline Thomsen contributed.