May 22 (UPI) -- A federal judge has sanctioned the Trump administration for its failure to produce hundreds of documents during legal proceedings over a controversial though now-barred 2020 census question.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York ordered the Justice Department on Thursday to cover the legal fees and other costs incurred by a group of non-governmental organizations during a legal challenge over the missing documents.
Furman said in his 23-page ruling that while the failure to produce the hundreds of documents may have been inadvertent, it was "nevertheless unacceptable for any litigant, and particularly for the Department of Justice."
"To be sure, this was not DOJ's finest hour," he wrote.
The Department of Justice attempted to argue the reason it failed to produce at least 900 documents, or more than 10 percent of the documents they were required to produce, was due to a technical error.
The documents had been collected and loaded on to a document-review platform, the defendants said, according to court documents, but a coding error led to incomplete search results.
"In other words, defendants' failure to produce the documents was caused by a lapse that would make a first-year litigation associate wince," he said.
The ruling follows the American Civil Liberties Union and others seeking the court to block the inclusion of a controversial citizenship question in the 2020 census that opponents said was discriminatory and would prevent immigrants from filling out the form.
Last year, the court ruled to block the question's inclusion, a decision that was backed by the Supreme Court. However, while the case was pending, the plaintiffs obtained documents they said prove the motive behind the question's inclusion was not to uphold the Voting Rights Act as was claimed but to support gerrymandering to benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic white people.
As part of the sanctions lawsuit, the plaintiffs had requested the court for further sanctions and to force the Trump administration to hand over more documents concerning the case, which Furman ruled were not warranted.
Furman said his ruling does not find the defendants' most troubling allegation that the Trump administration attempted to conceal evidence was wrong but that it exceeds the court's power.
"Even if plaintiffs' allegations are accurate, that would not have changed the outcome of this litigation," he wrote. "As defendants themselves acknowledge, plaintiffs prevailed at trial and in the Supreme Court."
Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, said the judge's ruling will finally bring this litigation to an end.
"The court has reaffirmed that the Trump administration's 'official story concealed their true reasons' for attempting to add a citizenship question to the census," he wrote in a statement.