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U.S. top court blocks questioning of Ross in census suit

By Andrew Chung
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross gestures during an interview with Reuters in his office at the U.S. Department of Commerce building in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

By Andrew Chung

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday blocked a judge's order forcing Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to give a deposition in a lawsuit by 18 states challenging a planned question in the 2020 census that would ask respondents whether they are U.S. citizens.

The justices issued a stay of the Sept. 21 order by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan requiring Ross to face questioning by lawyers for the states while litigation over the politically charged dispute continues.

The decision made it unlikely that Ross would testify at an upcoming trial in the case, which is scheduled for Nov. 5.

It represented only a partial win for President Donald Trump's administration as the justices declined to halt Furman's orders compelling a top Justice Department official, John Gore, to sit for a deposition and for the administration to hand over more documents on the matter.

Conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas said they would have issued a complete stay.

The court gave the government until Oct. 29 to appeal all of Furman's orders. Ross' deposition remains on hold until at least then.

Furman had said that Ross, whose department oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, must be questioned because his "intent and credibility are directly at issue" in the lawsuit.

The issue tests the justices' views, including those of Trump's new appointee, Brett Kavanaugh, on how much deference courts should give to a president's Cabinet members and other high-level administration officials.

The Trump administration has defended the citizenship question, saying the government needed the data to enforce a voting rights law as it relates to minority voters.

Critics have said the question will deter people in immigrant communities from participating in the census, disproportionately affecting Democratic-leaning states by undercounting the number of residents.

Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, who is among the state officials suing the administration, welcomed the court's decision to allow complete discovery in the case with the exception of Ross' deposition.

"We'll get to the bottom of how the decision to demand citizenship status was made, as we continue our case to ensure a full and fair census," she said in a statement.

The Department of Justice, which is defending the government, declined to comment.

The U.S. Constitution mandates a census every 10 years. It is used in the allocation of seats in Congress, the drawing of political boundaries, and the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funds. A citizenship question has not appeared on the census form since 1950.

The lawsuit, spearheaded by state and local Democratic officials, was filed in April in federal court in New York. It is consolidated with another suit by several immigrant rights groups accusing the government of discrimination against non-white immigrants in violation of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Furman said Ross' credibility was at issue because there was doubt about his public statements that the Justice Department initiated the request to include the citizenship question and that he was not aware of any discussions with the White House about it.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler and Peter Cooney)