Department of Justice shaking up legal team on census case

President Trump has demanded that the citizenship question be included.

July 7, 2019, 8:15 PM

The legal team coordinating efforts to include a controversial citizenship question on the 2020 census will undergo a major shakeup, with a new group of political and career attorneys expected to replace the current team, a Department of Justice official told ABC News.

The official could not say who will be leading the new team, but said the makeup will include political and career attorneys from the department’s civil and consumer protection divisions. The swap is expected to be announced in court filings by the department in census-related cases Monday.

“As will be reflected in filings tomorrow in the census-related cases, the Department of Justice is shifting these matters to a new team of Civil Division lawyers going forward, DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupec told ABC News in a statement. "Since these cases began, the lawyers representing the United States in these cases have given countless hours to defending the Commerce Department and have consistently demonstrated the highest professionalism, integrity, and skill inside and outside the courtroom."

"The Attorney General appreciates that service, thanks them for their work on these important matters, and is confident that the new team will carry on in the same exemplary fashion as the cases progress,” the statement continued.

The announcement heightened speculation that there have been concerns among members of the original legal team tasked with carrying out President Trump's demands to include the citizenship question despite a recent Supreme Court ruling blocking the move. When Trump last week demanded that the department reverse course after it conceded the 2020 census would not include the citizenship question, the government's lawyers struggled to explain a path forward when pressed by a federal judge.

The official said that James Burnham, currently the deputy attorney general in the department’s civil division, and a former lawyer in the White House counsel’s office, will be leaving the team.

"Burnham had no objection to handling the cases going forward, but also thought it made sense to have a new team at this stage in the litigation," the official said.

PHOTO: An envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census, March 23, 2018.
An envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census, March 23, 2018.
Michelle R. Smith/AP, FILE

The government filed legal papers with a federal court in Maryland on Friday stating its intention to move forward with finding a way to add the citizenship question, just hours after President Trump told reporters at the White House that he was considering "four or five" different avenues to do so in consultation with Attorney General William Barr.

Administration officials have said one of those avenues includes a potential executive order that could be issued as early as this week.

"We're fighting very hard against the system that's a very difficult system," Trump said.

Prior to the Supreme Court's ruling, the government had repeatedly argued in court that it needed to resolve all legal issues surrounding the census before July 1 in order to begin printing and have the forms ready for delivery to all American households by April 1 of next year.

The Commerce Department last week announced that the census had started printing without inclusion of the question, and the administration has stressed that printing process would continue through the ongoing legal fight. Officials have suggested that if the government is able to prevail in court that the question could be added as some sort of addendum.

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