WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has agreed to pay more than $6.6 million in legal fees so far to groups that sued over the government's failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, newly released documents show — and that number could continue to grow.
The Justice Department in August reached a deal to pay $2.7 million to the ACLU, which had challenged the citizenship question in federal court in New York. On Monday, DOJ and lawyers involved in two similar lawsuits in Maryland notified the judge that they had reached a settlement on legal fees as well, but didn't provide details. According to copies of the settlements obtained by BuzzFeed News from the Justice Department, the Trump administration agreed to pay an additional $3.95 million to the challengers in the Maryland cases.
The total amount of money the Trump administration will owe after dropping the fight over the citizenship question this summer is expected to grow. The Justice Department is still negotiating over how much it should pay in legal fees to the state of California and other west coast challengers. Last week, the lawyers asked for more time to try to reach a deal; if they can't agree, the challengers are due to file their demands for fees with the court by Oct. 11.
Under the federal Equal Access to Justice Act, parties who win civil lawsuits against the federal government can claim at least some of the money that they spent on the litigation. Lawyers who represent clients in these types of cases pro bono can also seek to recover the value of the time and money that they spent.
The settlements reached in the two Maryland cases — for $2.5 million and $1.45 million — represent a significant cut from what the challengers originally told the court they would ask for absent a deal. In mid-August, they had filed papers with initial demands for $7 million and $4 million, respectively. The lawyers in these cases represented a wide range of plaintiffs, including immigrant and civil rights organizations and individual residents of Maryland and Arizona who argued they'd be harmed if the citizenship question deflated the census response rate and led to less federal funding and decreased congressional representation for their home districts.
Federal judges in New York, Maryland, and California all initially sided with the groups that sued to challenge the Trump administration's plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The litigation ended up before the US Supreme Court, which issued a divided opinion in June. A majority of the justices concluded that a citizenship question wasn't unconstitutional on its face, but that the Trump administration had given a "contrived" reason for doing it this time, which ran afoul of federal law.
In early July, both the Justice Department and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross confirmed that the administration would drop the fight, only to be contradicted the next day by a tweet from Trump. But a week later, Trump appeared in the Rose Garden with Ross and Attorney General Bill Barr to announce that they would give up and conduct the 2020 census without a citizenship question. Trump cited the time it would take to go through more litigation, and said the administration would instead collect citizenship data from federal agencies — an option that the Census Bureau originally recommended to Ross before he decided to include the question as part of the census.
After that July announcement, the judges in New York, Maryland, and California entered final judgments in favor of the challengers, which meant their lawyers could make claims to have the government pay their legal bills.
Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Sutton declined to comment.
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups that sued in Maryland, said in a statement that the settlement agreements to date "are further measure of how costly the Trump administration’s unlawful and racially discriminatory attempt to add a citizenship question to the Census has been, and another indication of the harms emanating from the prevarications of Lyin’ Wilbur Ross, who inexplicably remains a member of the Cabinet of the United States.”