DOJ won't comply with Oversight subpoena over census question

DOJ won't comply with Oversight subpoena over census question
© Greg Nash

The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday doubled down on its refusal to comply with a subpoena issued by the House Oversight and Reform Committee for an official’s testimony on the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The Democratic-led committee had requested that John Gore, a deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s civil rights division, testify about the citizenship question. But the Justice Department said because lawmakers will still not allow a DOJ attorney to be in the room with Gore during his deposition, the official will not comply with the request.

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"We appreciate the offer made in the Committee's April 10, 2019, letter to permit Department counsel to be present in a separate room during the deposition, but such an accommodation would not address the Department's need to have counsel present in the deposition room to assist Mr. Gore in connection with the deposition,” the DOJ letter sent Wednesday reads. “We are disappointed that the Committee remains unwilling to permit Department counsel to represent the interests of the Executive Branch in the deposition of a senior Department official.”

Oversight Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsCummings: 'No doubt about it' Trump is a racist Cummings asks prosecutors about decision not to charge Trump in hush money probe DHS chief to Pelosi: Emergency border funding 'has already had an impact' MORE (D-Md.) blasted the Justice Department in a fiery statement, describing the refusal to comply as a "massive, unprecedented, and growing pattern of obstruction."

“As an officer of the court and a senior lawyer in a position of public trust at the Department of Justice, Mr. Gore should be well aware of his constitutional, legal, and ethical obligations to comply with a duly authorized subpoena from Congress," Cummings said. "Those obligations have not been erased by the Attorney General or the President."

“Committee investigators will gather tomorrow morning for this deposition — as scheduled — and we hope Mr. Gore will fulfill his legal and ethical responsibilities and appear as ordered.”

The DOJ previously asserted in a letter sent to Cummings earlier this month that it would not comply with the panel's subpoena if Gore was not permitted to have an agency attorney with him, arguing that barring DOJ legal representation was unprecedented as Gore previously testified with department counsel present.

DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement Wednesday that “[i]n keeping with longstanding Department of Justice policy, neither Mr. Gore nor anyone else in the Department will be forced to testify in their capacity as a DOJ official on DOJ matters without DOJ counsel.”

Another DOJ official told The Hill that Gore “has the Attorney General’s unqualified support in this matter.”

The DOJ’s refusal to comply with the subpoena escalates the battle between the Justice Department and Congress over the citizenship question.

Gore had previously been scheduled to testify with the committee earlier this month, but the deposition was postponed after DOJ initially said that the official would not appear at the time.

Cummings has been leading the House investigation into the administration's decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census.

The question has been a point of major legal contention, with critics suing to block the question’s addition over concerns that undocumented residents won’t fill out the survey and that it will impact the population count. Census data is used to determine allocation of federal funding.

Three federal judges have struck down the question in lower courts. But the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments about the citizenship question on Tuesday, appears poised to allow the query to be featured on the 2020 census.

The congressional investigation was also raised during oral arguments about the citizenship question before the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Conservative members of the court asked House General Counsel Douglas Letter why Congress couldn’t take action to stop the question from being added to the census instead of asking the court to block it.

Letter replied that lawmakers have asked that DOJ officials testify about the question’s addition but had refused to comply with those requests, effectively preventing Congress from being able to take any substantial action.

In addition to issuing a subpoena for Gore earlier this month, 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 RossHistory in the House: Congress weathers unprecedented week The Hill's 12:30 Report: 'Send her back' chants stun Washington The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP MORE.

The Department of Commerce announced the addition of the question to the 2020 census last year, arguing it would help the DOJ enforce the Voting Rights Act. But the announcement quickly sparked a number of legal challenges. 

Updated: 3:36 p.m.