A federal judge in New York on Tuesday blocked the Department of Justice (DOJ) from changing its entire legal team handling a case on the census citizenship question in federal court in the state.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman found that DOJ’s motion did not address a procedural rule requiring them to provide a reason for the attorneys’ withdrawal from the case.
He wrote that the department’s filing offers “no reasons, let alone ‘satisfactory reasons,’ for the substitution of counsel.”
Furman, an Obama appointee, ruled in such a way that would allow DOJ to try to withdraw the attorneys again. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.
Plaintiffs in the New York case had filed a motion late Monday opposing the withdrawal of the DOJ lawyers.
The Justice Department announced late Sunday that it was changing its entire legal team that handles litigation on the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census. However, officials did not provide a specific reason for doing so, fueling speculation that career DOJ lawyers could have refused to continue working on the case.
The judge raised questions as to how the Justice Department could reasonably meet upcoming deadlines set in the case, if the entire legal team was being swapped out for a new one.
“As this court observed many months ago, this case has been litigated on the premise — based ‘in no small part’ on Defendants’ own ‘insist[ence]’ — that the speedy resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims is a matter of great private and public importance,” Furman wrote. “If anything, that urgency — and the need for efficient judicial proceedings — has only grown since that time.”
Furman ordered that every DOJ lawyer who wants to withdraw from the case to submit a signed and sworn affidavit giving “satisfactory reasons” for leaving the litigation.
“In the event any new motion is filed, new counsel for Defendants shall also file an affidavit providing unequivocal assurances that the substitution of counsel will not delay further litigation of this case (or any future related case),” he wrote.
However, he did allow for two attorneys to be pulled from the case, as they had already left the Justice Department or DOJ’s civil division.
The decision to pull the attorneys was a highly unusual one, raising questions about whether the lawyers felt comfortable continuing on in a legal case that would effectively require them to work around a Supreme Court ruling.
— Updated at 6:04 p.m.