By Jack Phillips
A federal judge in Florida temporarily halted the White House’s $4 billion debt relief program that targeted farmers on the basis of race, saying Wednesday that it was discriminatory.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard ruled in favor of Florida-based farmer Scott Wynn, who is white, and who filed a lawsuit to block the program in May. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented the program as part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that sought to distribute funding to “socially disadvantaged farmers.”
The rule’s “rigid, categorical, race-based qualification for relief is the antithesis of flexibility,” Howard wrote (pdf) Wednesday. “The debt relief provision applies strictly on racial grounds irrespective of any other factor.”
The USDA program could continue to provide funds in the meantime as the court attempts to determine what provisions should be considered unconstitutional, the judge said. Howard also noted that some minority farmers have faced hurdles in the past but said that the current policy is discriminatory against white farmers.
“It is undeniable—and notably uncontested by the parties—that U.S.D.A. had a dark history of past discrimination against minority farmers,” the judge ruled. “It appears that in enacting Section 1005, Congress relies, albeit without any ill intention, on present discrimination to remedy past discrimination,” she wrote. Section 1005 refers to the provision that Wynn’s lawsuit had argued was discriminatory.
She added: “On the record before the Court, it appears that in adopting Section 1005’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.
Another judge in Wisconsin had issued a similar ruling earlier this month on the controversial provision and issued a temporary restraining order after a group of white farmers filed a lawsuit against the USDA insisting they be included in the program.
U.S. District Judge William Griesbach, in issuing a temporary restraining order, wrote that “plaintiffs are excluded from the program based on their race and are thus experiencing discrimination at the hands of their government,” noting the farmers who filed the lawsuit “have established a strong likelihood that Section 1005 of the ARPA is unconstitutional.”
Signed into law on March 11, ARPA (the American Rescue Plan Act) directs the federal government to hand out $1.9 trillion in federal funds. Section 1005 stipulates that the USDA “provide a payment in an amount up to 120 percent of the outstanding indebtedness of each socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher as of January 1, 2021,” according to the text of the law.
Farmers and ranchers who are black, Native American, Hispanic, Asian, Hawaiian, or Pacific Islanders are eligible for a loan regardless of whether they’ve suffered any discrimination in obtaining loans or elsewhere. The law also doesn’t take into account their present economic situation.