TALLAHASSEE — Siding with a white farmer from North Florida, a U.S. district judge has blocked a federal plan to provide loan relief to Black and other minority farmers who historically faced discrimination.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard, who is based in Jacksonville, issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday against the plan, which was part of the American Rescue Plan Act, a stimulus law signed in March by President Joe Biden.
Scott Wynn, a white farmer in the Hamilton County community of Jennings, filed the lawsuit in May, arguing that the plan violates constitutional equal-protection rights. Howard, in a 49-page decision, at least temporarily blocked the U.S. Department of Agriculture from providing the loan relief.
“In enacting (the section of the American Rescue Plan Act), Congress expressed the intention of seeking to remedy a long, sad history of discrimination against (minority farmers) in the provision and receipt of USDA loans and programs. Such an intention is not only laudable, it is demanded by the Constitution,” she wrote. “But in doing so, Congress also must heed its obligation to do away with governmentally imposed discrimination based on race. ... On the record before the court, it appears that in adopting (the section’s) strict race-based debt relief remedy, Congress moved with great speed to address the history of discrimination, but did not move with great care. Indeed, the remedy chosen and provided … appears to fall well short of the delicate balance accomplished when a legislative enactment employs race in a narrowly tailored manner to address a specific compelling governmental interest.”
The law calls for providing debt relief to “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” which include Black, Native American, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander farmers. It authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pay up to 120 percent of farmers’ indebtedness on direct Farm Service Agency loans and other loans guaranteed by the department.
In a court document opposing Wynn’s request for a preliminary injunction, U.S. Department of Justice attorneys said Congress passed the plan to provide aid to “socially disadvantaged farmers who it determined needed such relief due to decades of discrimination against them in U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on them and the failure of prior funding to reach them.”
“The Supreme Court has recognized that both of Congress’ interests in enacting (the section of law) — remedying prior discrimination against minority farmers in USDA programs and ensuring that its funding does not serve to perpetuate the effects of that discrimination — are compelling,” the Department of Justice attorneys wrote. “Congress had strong evidence, including testimony and reports spanning decades and up to the enactment of (the section) documenting discrimination against minority farmers in USDA programs and its lingering effects, thereby necessitating the remedial action. … And Congress narrowly tailored its remedy by directing one-time payments to the groups it found to have suffered such discrimination, only after trying race-neutral alternatives for decades.”
But Howard said the relief was not tailored narrowly enough.
“Although the government argues that (the section) is narrowly tailored to reach small farmers or farmers on the brink of foreclosure, it is not,” she wrote. “Regardless of farm size, an SDFR (socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher) receives up to 120 percent debt relief. And regardless of whether an SDFR is having the most profitable year ever and not remotely in danger of foreclosure, that SDFR receives up to 120 percent debt relief. Yet a small white farmer who is on the brink of foreclosure can do nothing to qualify for debt relief. Race or ethnicity is the sole, inflexible factor that determines the availability of relief provided by the government.”
Wynn, who is represented by attorneys from the Pacific Legal Foundation, a national group, has owned a farm since 2006 and farms cattle and hay, the lawsuit said.
By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida