DOJ pushes back against claims changing legal team would delay census case

DOJ pushes back against claims changing legal team would delay census case

The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday pushed back against arguments that changing out their legal teams for a case in Maryland about adding a citizenship question to the census could cause delays in the proceedings.

The DOJ said in a federal court filing that new attorneys have already begun working on the case and called claims that they may be in violation of a local procedural rule by not providing a specific reason for changing the lawyers “misplaced.”

Federal prosecutors were replying to a motion filed by those opposing the citizenship question on Tuesday evening, asking Judge George Hazel — who is overseeing the case — to order the DOJ to say why the attorneys are leaving the case and guarantee that the change in legal representation won’t delay the proceedings.

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On Wednesday, DOJ lawyers — the same originally assigned to the case — wrote that concerns that changing the attorneys could potentially hurt the citizenship question’s opponents “are equally meritless.”

The federal prosecutors noted that the case is still being handled by the DOJ’s Civil Division “and new attorneys that have been assigned are entering appearances and already have begun working on the case." The Justice Department also maintained that the staffing changes "will not affect the posture of the case or cause any disruption in this matter.

The back-and-forth in the Maryland case comes after Judge Jesse Furman, who is overseeing another lawsuit on the citizenship question in New York, rejected the DOJ’s request there to change out its entire legal team for the case.

He found the motion to be “patently deficient” and ordered each attorney attempting to withdraw from the case to submit a signed and sworn affidavit explaining why.

Opponents of the citizenship question cited Furman's order in their request to the judge in Maryland. 

Hazel is tasked with determining whether there was a discriminatory intent behind the citizenship question’s addition to the 2020 census. Discovery in the case is scheduled to conclude by the end of August.

“In reality, there is every reason to expect that this sudden purge of trial counsel will cause both severe disruption of the case and undue risk of prejudice to Plaintiffs’ rights,” the citizenship question opponents wrote in their motion.

“A wholesale change of Defendants’ legal team at this late stage of the litigation creates an acute risk that discovery on Plaintiff’s Equal Protection claim will be further delayed and bogged down while uninitiated counsel for Defendants to try to understand the case,” the filing reads. “As the court has recognized, time continues to be of the essence, and any further delay could prejudice Plaintiffs.”

The Justice Department announced on Sunday that it would be changing out the entire legal team handing the census citizenship cases, a stunning move as the Trump administration tries to determine another way to add the question to the 2020 census.

The Supreme Court ruled last month against the question's addition, finding that the evidence in the case didn't align with the Trump administration's given rationale, enforcing the Voting Rights Act. But they sent the matter back to the Commerce Department, saying officials could give another reason for including the question on the survey.