A federal judge has halted the Biden administration’s program offering loan forgiveness for minority farmers only, stating that the federal government “cannot discriminate on the basis of race.”
U.S. District Court Judge William C. Griesbach granted Thursday a temporary restraining order in response to an anti-discrimination lawsuit filed in April by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty on behalf of 12 White farmers in eight states.
The program, part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, earmarks about $4 billion for up to 120% in debt relief for “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers as defined by their race, not losses sustained during the pandemic or specific claims of financial need.
“Instead, the only consideration in determining whether a farmer or rancher’s loans should be completely forgiven is the person’s race or national origin,” said Judge Griesbach in his 10-page ruling.
The American Rescue Plan defines “socially disadvantaged” producers as those “who are one or more of the following: Black/African American, American Indian, Alaskan native, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or Pacific Islander,” according to the Agriculture Department.
“Plaintiffs are completely excluded from participation in the program based on their race,” he said. “If the Court does not issue an injunction, the USDA will spend the allocated money and forgive the loans of minority farmers while the case is pending and will have no incentive to provide similar relief on an equitable basis to others.”
He found that the White farmers were likely to succeed on the merits, given that they are “excluded from the program based on their race and are thus experiencing discrimination at the hands of their government.”
The strongly worded ruling comes as a setback for the Biden administration, which had sought to address the USDA’s past history of discriminatory behavior in agricultural lending through the economic stimulus plan’s Section 1005 program.
The judge suggested an alternative: Stop discriminating.
“The obvious response to a government agency that claims it continues to discriminate against farmers because of their race or national origin is to direct it to stop: it is not to direct it to intentionally discriminate against others on the basis of their race and national origin,” said Judge Griesbach, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.
In a statement, the USDA said it would keep up its fight to preserve the loan program.
“We respectfully disagree with this temporary order and USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers,” said the statement. “When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress.”
The lawsuit is one of at least three filed on behalf of White agricultural producers alleging that the Biden administration’s race-based relief criteria violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
Rick Esenberg, WILL president and general counsel, said that the court “recognized that the federal government’s plan to condition and allocate benefits on the basis of race raises grave constitutional concerns and threatens our clients with irreparable harm.”
“The Biden administration is radically undermining bedrock principles of equality under the law,” said Mr. Esenberg. “We look forward to continuing this litigation but urge the administration to change course now.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced May 21 the USDA’s first notice of funding availability under the program, and that payments could be delivered as soon as early June.
Over the last 30 years, the USDA has entered into settlements with Black farmers over discriminatory lending practices, but “those settlements and other related actions did not address the systemic and cumulative impacts of discrimination over a number of decades that the American Rescue Plan now begins to address,” the USDA said.
The latest USDA Census of Agriculture in 2017 found that 95.4% of farm producers were White, while 1.3% were Black, 3% were Hispanic, 0.6% were Asian American, and 1.7% were Native American/Alaska Native.