WASHINGTON — In a course reversal, a Justice Department attorney on Wednesday said the government is looking for a way to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, one day after it said it would drop that effort and was printing the form without it.

The statement came during a phone call with a federal judge in Maryland who had ruled against including the question.

Joseph Hunt, assistant attorney general for the department’s civil division, said the administration was looking for a legal path forward after the Supreme Court last week froze the administration’s plan to include it on the survey sent to every U.S. household and said the administration needed to provide a better justification if it wants to add it.

Donald Trump

A day after the Justice department said it would abandon the effort to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, President Trump said Wednesday that his administration was “absolutely moving forward” with its plan. Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Hunt told Judge George Hazel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland that Justice Department lawyers had been “instructed to examine whether there is a path forward, consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision.” Hunt did not say who issued the instruction.

In a separate filing in federal court in New York that also is handling a case about the citizenship question, Hunt wrote that the DOJ and the Department of Commerce had been asked to “reevaluate all available options” and that the Commerce Department may adopt “a new rationale” for including the question.

The discussion came during a day of legal turmoil triggered by a Wednesday morning tweet from President Trump saying his administration was “absolutely moving forward” with its plan.


“The News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE!” Trump wrote. “We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”

Hazel said he had seen the tweet, a transcript of the phone call says, and ordered lawyers in the Maryland case to get on an afternoon call with him to try to clarify the government’s plan in a case that had appeared to be resolved as of Tuesday night.

But even on that call there was discord among Justice lawyers.

The transcript of the call shows that Joshua Gardner, who had led the government defense team in the cases before Hazel, said as far as he knew the question was removed and the form was being printed absent it and that the president’s tweet was the first he had heard of anything different.

Gardner turned the call over to Hunt who said the plan was to try to move ahead.

Census officials on Wednesday evening referred questions about the current status of the forms to the Commerce Department, which did not answer requests for comment Wednesday.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.