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Judge blocks $4b US debt relief program for minority farmers

A $4 billion federal fund meant to confront how racial injustice has shaped American farming has angered white farmers who say they are being unfairly excluded.
A $4 billion federal fund meant to confront how racial injustice has shaped American farming has angered white farmers who say they are being unfairly excluded.NEETA SATAM/NYT

A federal judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked the Biden administration from making loan forgiveness payments to minority farmers as part of a $4 billion program intended to address a long history of racial injustice in American farming.

The judge, Marcia Morales Howard of US District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Jacksonville, found that Scott Wynn, a white farmer in Jennings, Fla., who had challenged the program in a lawsuit in May, was likely to succeed on his claim that the program violates his right to equal protection under the law.

Known as Section 1005, the program was created as part of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that Congress passed in March. It was intended to provide debt relief to “socially disadvantaged farmers” — defined by the government as those who are Black, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander.

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“Section 1005′s rigid, categorical, race-based qualification for relief is the antithesis of flexibility,” Howard wrote. “The debt relief provision applies strictly on racial grounds irrespective of any other factor. Every person who identifies him or herself as falling within a socially disadvantaged group who has a qualifying farm loan with an outstanding balance as of January 1, 2021, receives up to 120 percent debt relief — and no one else receives any debt relief.”

In defending the program, the Biden administration had said that the government had a compelling interest in remedying a well-documented history of discrimination against minority farmers in Department of Agriculture loan and other programs and in preventing public funds from being allocated in a way that perpetuates the effects of discrimination.

Nonwhite farmers have long endured discrimination, from violence and land theft in the Jim Crow South to banks and federal farm offices that refused them loans or government benefits that went to white farmers.

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“It is undeniable — and notably uncontested by the parties — that USDA had a dark history of past discrimination against minority farmers,” Howard wrote.

But she agreed with Wynn who, echoing the sentiments of other white farmers, had argued that the program discriminated against white farmers and ranchers because of their race.

“It appears that in enacting Section 1005 Congress relies, albeit without any ill intention, on present discrimination to remedy past discrimination,” she wrote.

For example, “socially disadvantaged farmers” may qualify for 120 percent debt relief under the program, regardless of the size of their farms and even if they are “having the most profitable year ever and not remotely in danger of foreclosure,” Howard wrote.

“Yet a small white farmer who is on the brink of foreclosure can do nothing to qualify for debt relief,” she wrote. “Race or ethnicity is the sole, inflexible factor that determines the availability of relief provided by the Government under Section 1005.”

In her ruling, Howard granted Wynn’s request for a preliminary injunction stopping the Agriculture Department from issuing any payments, loan assistance or debt relief under the program until further notice.

She ordered Wynn and the Agriculture Department to submit by June 29 an expedited schedule to resolve the case. She also said that the Biden administration could continue to prepare to provide relief under the program “in the event it is ultimately found to be constitutionally permissible.”

The Agriculture Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday night.

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The Pacific Legal Foundation, which had filed the lawsuit on behalf of Wynn, welcomed the ruling.

“Today’s injunction enforces a basic foundation of our Constitution: The government can’t treat people unequally based on immutable characteristics like race,” said Wen Fa, a lawyer for the foundation. “The government can’t allow some people to take part in federal programs while denying others based solely on the color of their skin.”

John Boyd Jr., the president of the National Black Farmers Association, expressed disappointment that the payments had not been made before the ruling was issued.

“I’m very, very disappointed in this decision,” he said in an interview Wednesday night. “I’m prepared to fight for debt relief for Black farmers and other farmers all the way to the Supreme Court. I’m not going to stop fighting this.”

David Muraskin, a lawyer with Public Justice, which represents the National Black Farmers Association, also defended the program.

“As the Court recognized, USDA’s discrimination against farmers of color was rampant and severe,” he wrote in an email. “This loan repayment program was a necessary step towards fixing those harms. To recognize and correct racism is not racist or unconstitutional.”