The Biden administration’s efforts to grant debt relief to minority producers requested by Congress suffered another legal setback on Friday with an order from the North Texas District banning race-based payments and certifying the case as a class action.
“As other courts have done in dealing with this issue in the past, the court concludes that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the government’s use of preferences based on race and ethnicity in administering the loan forgiveness program violates equality of protection. under the Constitution ”, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor said in a ruling Thursday afternoon.
The USDA quickly filed a “notice” Friday, July 2 on the scope of the injunction, noting that courts in Wisconsin and Florida that suspended payments have allowed USDA to continue some work on the program, which ‘he intends to continue doing.
“These injunctions prohibited the USDA from making payments under Section 1005, but they authorized the USDA to take preparatory steps to allow the agency to be able to ‘make’ them. where the injunctions would be lifted “, USDA said in the document, citing as an example “sending letters of offer to eligible borrowers, to allow prompt payments if allowed later”.
The USDA has stated that it “understands that the continuation of this prepayment preparatory work is in accordance with the order of this tribunal as long as no payment is made, but the USDA respectfully submits this notice to advise the court of its interpretation and planned implementation of the court order. “
Judges in Wisconsin and Florida have already issued orders banning the distribution of funds under the $ 4 billion program, under which African American, Asian American, Hawaiian or Pacific Island native, Native American or Alaskan and Latino producers or Hispanics are eligible for 120% debt relief. Under the program, recipients of direct and guaranteed loans can have 100% of their debt forgiven, with the remaining 20% of the payment going to cover taxes associated with the relief.
O’Connor cited the decision of Judge Marcia Morales Howard in Florida, writing that “the loan forgiveness program is both too inclusive and insufficient: sub-inclusive in that it does not provide any relief to those who have. suffered such discrimination ”but do not hold an eligible loan from the agricultural service agency.
Plaintiffs in the Texas case include Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who is suing in a personal capacity, and four other white farmers or ranchers.
As the other justices put it in their rulings, O’Connor determined that the government had not argued “that its race-based distribution of taxpayer dollars is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling interest.”
It has also certified two categories of producers to be represented by applicants:
- “All farmers and ranchers in the United States who face or will face racial discrimination from [USDA] due to section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act.
- “All farmers and ranchers in the United States who are currently excluded from the definition of” socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher “, as defined in 7 USC § 2279 (a) (5) – (6) and as interpreted by the Ministry of Agriculture. “
In their brief requesting class certification, the farmers said that the “common characteristics” of the first class of producers “were that they are all white farmers or ranchers who have loans directly with or guaranteed by [USDA], and who were disqualified for loan forgiveness “as part of the US bailout because they are white. Based on USDA figures, the brief states that” the national class includes at least 21,000 farmers and over 1,000 in Texas alone “.
The “common characteristics” of the second class are that the producers “are all white (or predominantly white) farmers or ranchers who face discrimination from [USDA] because of their race, ”the file says, estimating this class between 200,000 and 250,000 white farmers and ranchers.
The brief said: “The representatives of the plaintiffs seek to plead a question of law common to all the members of each of the two classes: does the [USDA] violate the Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by limiting eligibility for government benefits to “socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers”? This question concerns all members of the group because each of them is discriminated against on the basis of their race. “
“The resolution of the alleged conflict between, on the one hand, programs aimed at ‘socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers’ and, on the other hand, equal constitutional protection provides a common answer to a narrow legal question based on alleged harm. specific ‘in a stroke.’ O’Connor concluded, citing a 2020 Supreme Court decision. “As a result, the plaintiffs have satisfied the community requirement for certification of both classes.”
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Stephen Miller, former aide to President Donald Trump who founded a legal group representing farmers, said, “America First Legal has secured a historic victory for its clients against the Biden administration’s illegal and unconstitutional attack on Americans’ basic civil rights. This preliminary injunction and collective certification sends a powerful message that the federal government’s discrimination against American citizens on the basis of their race will not be tolerated and will be overcome. America First Legal is proud to be at the forefront of the legal battle to defend civil rights, protect equal justice and dismantle government-sponsored racism. “
A spokesperson for the Agriculture Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has previously defended the program in public comments, claiming that socially disadvantaged producers “were not fully benefiting” from previous USDA programs, “and the result is that the system makes it very difficult for them to close that gap, to have a chance. ”
Under previous Florida and Wisconsin rulings, the USDA was allowed to continue to receive and process debt relief requests, but was prohibited from making payments under the program. .
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This story has been updated to include the USDA court record for July 2.