A federal judge in New York on Tuesday blocked the Department of Justice (DOJ) from changing its entire legal team handling a case on the census citizenship question in federal court in the state.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman found that DOJ’s motion did not address a procedural rule requiring them to provide a reason for the attorneys’ withdrawal from the case.
He wrote that the department’s filing offers “no reasons, let alone ‘satisfactory reasons,’ for the substitution of counsel.”
Furman, an Obama appointee, ruled in such a way that would allow DOJ to try to withdraw the attorneys again. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.
Plaintiffs in the New York case had filed a motion late Monday opposing the withdrawal of the DOJ lawyers.
The Justice Department announced late Sunday that it was changing its entire legal team that handles litigation on the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census. However, officials did not provide a specific reason for doing so, fueling speculation that career DOJ lawyers could have refused to continue working on the case.
“Defendants’ mere ‘expect[ation] that withdrawal of current counsel will [not] cause any disruption’ is not good enough,” Furman wrote, adding that the motion is “patently deficient.”
The judge raised questions as to how the Justice Department could reasonably meet upcoming deadlines set in the case, if the entire legal team was being swapped out for a new one.
“As this court observed many months ago, this case has been litigated on the premise — based ‘in no small part’ on Defendants’ own ‘insist[ence]’ — that the speedy resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims is a matter of great private and public importance,” Furman wrote. “If anything, that urgency — and the need for efficient judicial proceedings — has only grown since that time.”
Furman ordered that every DOJ lawyer who wants to withdraw from the case submit a signed and sworn affidavit giving “satisfactory reasons” for leaving the litigation.
“In the event any new motion is filed, new counsel for Defendants shall also file an affidavit providing unequivocal assurances that the substitution of counsel will not delay further litigation of this case (or any future related case),” he wrote.
However, he did allow for two attorneys to be pulled from the case, as they had already left the Justice Department or DOJ’s civil division.
The decision to pull the attorneys was a highly unusual one, raising questions about whether the lawyers felt comfortable continuing on in a legal case that would effectively require them to work around a Supreme Court ruling.
The attorneys would also have to present another line of reasoning behind adding the question to the 2020 census, after arguing in court otherwise for more than a year.
Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrJeffrey Epstein forces Washington to deal with embarrassing connections Top Mueller prosecutor Zainab Ahmad joins law firm Gibson Dunn House Democrats seeking testimony from two Mueller deputies: report MORE addressed the surprise staffing switch during an interview with The New York Times on Monday.
“We’re going to reach a new decision, and I can understand if they’re interested in not participating in this phase,” Barr told the newspaper.
The Supreme Court, in the 5-4 decision last month, said the rationale for adding the question to the census — enforcing the Voting Rights Act — didn’t match up with the evidence in the case. But they sent the matter back to the Commerce Department to provide another reason for the question’s inclusion.
Trump has been determined to see the question on the census, and bashed the Supreme Court over the ruling in a tweet earlier Tuesday.
“I have long heard that the appointment of Supreme Court Justices is a President’s most important decision. SO TRUE!” he wrote.
— Updated at 6: 04 p.m.