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Federal judge blocks Justice Department from removing lawyers in census case

The judge in the case said that before lawyers can get off a case, court rules require them to explain why they wish to withdraw and he called the DOJ request "patently deficient."

A federal judge late Tuesday refused to let Justice Department lawyers withdraw from a dispute over the citizenship question on the 2020 census form, in a case that continues after the Supreme Court's ruling in late June.

Eleven lawyers from the DOJ asked Judge Jesse Furman of the U.S. district court for the Southern District of New York on Monday for permission to step down from representing the government in the dispute. Attorney General William Barr has said that given the department's decision to press ahead on the issue, "I can understand if they're not interested in participating in this phase."

DOJ officials said privately that Barr acted before the lawyers could officially object to further work on the matter.

But Furman said that before lawyers can get off a case, court rules require them to explain why they wish to withdraw and that the DOJ request was "patently deficient." That's especially true, he said, given that legal briefs are due in a few days on whether the judge should issue an order preventing any action by the government to put the question on the form.

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The case has been litigated on the premise, at the government's insistence, that a speedy resolution "is a matter of great private and public importance," Furman said.

His order allowed the government lawyers to resubmit their request to withdraw, provided that they offer satisfactory reasons and agree to make themselves available if needed at any future hearings.

The judge allowed two of the 11 lawyers to withdraw. One has left the DOJ, the other is no longer in the Civil Division, which handles lawsuits of this type.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been fighting to keep the question off the form, praised the judge’s order. "The Justice Department owes the public and the courts an explanation for its unprecedented substitution of the entire legal team that has been working on this case. The Trump administration is acting like it has something to hide, and we won’t rest until we know the truth,” Dale Ho, director of the group’s Voting Rights Project, said.

The Trump administration continues to print the census forms without the citizenship question. But both President Donald Trump and Barr have said that an announcement is coming in the next few days of how the administration intends to try a new approach to have the question be part of the census process.

Tuesday night, the president addressed the judge's decision on Twitter, writing: "So now the Obama appointed judge on the Census case (Are you a Citizen of the United States?) won’t let the Justice Department use the lawyers that it wants to use. Could this be a first?"