WASHINGTON — A federal district judge in Maryland on Wednesday ruled that new evidence in the case of a census citizenship question merits additional consideration, opening the door for plaintiffs’ lawyers to request that an appeals court return the case to him.
Civil rights groups who had sued the government over its addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census had asked US District Court Judge George Hazel to reconsider his ruling on whether the government was guilty of conspiracy and intent to discriminate after new evidence in the case emerged last month.
Files discovered on hard drives of a deceased Republican redistricting strategist suggested that he had communicated with the Trump administration about how to get the citizenship question onto the survey and that the strategist had determined that adding the question would create an electoral advantage for Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.
Hazel had ruled in April against the question, joining two other federal judges in finding that the government had violated administrative law when it added it last year. But in that ruling he did not find enough evidence to support plaintiffs’ claims that the government intended to discriminate against immigrants, Latinos, and Asian-Americans by adding the question, or that adding it was part of a conspiracy within the Trump administration to violate the constitutional rights of noncitizens and people of color.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of this month on whether to uphold the three lower courts’ rulings.
But plaintiffs in Maryland had also said that the administration intended to cause an undercount of minorities in violation of the equal-protection clause of the Fifth Amendment and that it conspired to deprive racial minorities of their constitutional rights.
If Hazel or the appellate court decides this was the case, the ruling would bring the question into areas the high court is not currently considering, and could potentially provide an additional path for the question to come before the Supreme Court again.
At a hearing in Greenbelt, Md., on Tuesday, plaintiffs’ lawyers argued the new evidence was enough to prove a clear connection between the strategist, Thomas Hofeller, and Trump administration officials who pushed for the question to be added. Department of Justice lawyers at the hearing sought to discredit the new evidence, calling into question its authenticity.
The case is technically closed in Hazel’s court. It now resides with the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which can either return the case to Hazel or decide to rule regardless of his recommendation.
Hazel could have reversed his earlier decision; his ruling Wednesday does not definitively indicate how he would rule if the case is returned to him. But plaintiffs’ lawyers hailed it as a win.
‘‘This is a significant move by the district court that gives credence to what we all know, that the government conspired to discriminate against Latinos and immigrants of color when it added a citizenship question to the 2020 census,’’ said Andrea Senteno, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a plaintiff in the case.
Requests for comment from the Department of Justice and the Department of Commerce were not immediately returned.
The Supreme Court had expedited consideration of the question in order to enable census forms to be sent to the printer in July, and it is expected to announce a decision before its term ends next week. In an argument in April, the conservative majority appeared inclined to defer to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ authority in adding questions to the census form, including the one on citizenship.
But after the new evidence emerged, civil rights groups in the New York case asked the high court to delay its ruling, saying if it was not prepared to affirm the lower court rulings, it should send the issue back to a lower court to consider the new evidence.
If Hazel were to regain jurisdiction over the case and reverse his decision on conspiracy and intent to discriminate, that could provide a path for litigants to return the case to the Supreme Court and for the question to remain open into the fall.
‘‘Today’s news opens up the possibility that there could be additional viable legal challenges to the citizenship question beyond what the Supreme Court now has in front of it,’’ said Thomas Wolf, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.
The Justice Department has denied that Hofeller influenced the administration’s decision to add the question, and characterized the new claims as a ‘‘frivolous’’ last-ditch effort to derail the Supreme Court’s decision.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers also suggested in court Tuesday that the July deadline for printing the forms may not be fixed, noting that the Census Bureau’s chief scientist has said forms could be printed as late as October of this year.