Democrats sue Barr, Ross for not complying with census subpoenas

The House Oversight Committee on Tuesday sued Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrBill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn Hillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter split on Bloomberg video | Sanders briefed on Russian efforts to help campaign | Barr to meet with Republicans ahead of surveillance fight Sanders says he was briefed on Russian effort to help campaign MORE and Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis Ross2020 census to run ads on 'Premio lo Nuestro' Can the US slap tariffs on auto imports? Not anymore On The Money: Slowing economy complicates 2020 message for Trump | Tech confronts growing impact of coronavirus | Manufacturing rises after five-month contraction MORE over their refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas in the panel's investigation of the aborted effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

“Since the Supreme Court ruled against them—and the House of Representatives held them in contempt for blocking the Committee’s investigation—Attorney General Barr and Commerce Secretary Ross have doubled down on their open defiance of the rule of law and refused to produce even a single additional document in response to our Committee’s bipartisan subpoenas," House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyHouse Oversight accuses Border Patrol of blocking investigation into secret Facebook group Lawmakers grill Census Bureau officials after report on cybersecurity issues Booker, Merkley propose federal facial recognition moratorium MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

"President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll MORE and his aides are not above the law," Maloney added. "They cannot be allowed to disregard and degrade the authority of Congress to fulfill our core Constitutional legislative and oversight responsibilities.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In a statement, a Commerce Department spokesperson called Oversight lawmakers "overzealous" and said the lawsuit lacks merit.

"Moreover, the Department of Commerce has cooperated in good faith with the Committee," the spokesperson said. "After their first document request in January of 2019 on the Secretary’s decision to reinstate the citizenship question to the 2020 Census, the Department made over 2,000 documents available to the Committee, and submitted hundreds of pages of additional documents since the Supreme Court’s decision.

"At the same time, the Department allowed current and former officials to sit with representatives of the Committee for transcribed interviews, while the Secretary himself testified voluntarily in front of the full Committee for seven hours," the spokesperson added. "Together, they answered well over a thousand questions."

A DOJ spokeswoman did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

The Trump administration abandoned its effort to add a citizenship question to the census after the Supreme Court ruled in June that it hadn't adequately justified the move.

ADVERTISEMENT

It's been four months since the House voted to hold Barr and Ross in criminal contempt for refusing to hand over documents in response to the subpoenas, though the Justice Department has not acted on their request for prosecution.

President Trump has asserted that the documents are protected from subpoena by executive privilege.

In their complaint filed in federal district court in Washington, the Oversight Committee said that it had identified evidence of political meddling in the design of the census, and that the responsive documents would be key to the investigation and any effort to protect the 2020 census.

"Defendants are legally obligated to honor the Subpoenas and have identified no valid privilege that would justify their refusal to comply," the lawsuit reads. "Their unlawful withholding of information is injuring the Committee in carrying out two critical constitutional functions: conducting effective oversight of the Executive Branch and its officials, who have provided false testimony to Congress and misled Congress and the American public; and determining whether legislation is necessary, potentially on an emergency basis, to ensure the integrity of the 2020 Census."

Ross had testified to Congress that the decision to add a question about citizenship to the census was solely in response to a DOJ request for data to inform its efforts to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Democrats alleged that he had been committed to adding the question from early on in the administration and used voting rights as a pretext to justify a blatant political maneuver.

In June, the Supreme Court agreed with that theory and put a stop to the administration's plans. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, and joined by the four liberal justices, the court said that Ross' rationale "seems to have been contrived."

"Several points, taken together, reveal a significant mismatch between the Secretary’s decision and the rationale he provided," Roberts wrote. "The record shows that he began taking steps to reinstate the question a week into his tenure, but gives no hint that he was considering VRA enforcement."

The Democratic lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that the administration had its sights set on adding a citizenship question from the early days of Trump's term as part of an effort to make post-census legislative redistricting more favorable to Republicans.

According to evidence cited in the complaint, Ross and his aides conspired with DOJ officials to have their agency request more accurate citizenship data from the Commerce Department so that Ross would have a legal justification for the move.

The Oversight Committee also accused Ross of lying to Congress about the justification for the question and whether he had any communications with the White House about the effort.

"Secretary Ross provided false testimony under oath to multiple committees of Congress, mispresented to the American people the reasons for his attempt to add the citizenship questions, and then attempted to continue that false narrative when his actions were challenged in federal court," the panel wrote in its complaint. "The Committee has an undeniable interest in understanding the origins and extent of that dishonesty in order to redress the harm it has caused."

Updated at 2:30 p.m.