Judge blocks debt relief program for farmers of color

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A federal judge on Thursday ruled in favor of a White farmer from Florida, blocking a Biden administration debt relief plan for farmers of color. File Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI

A federal judge on Thursday ruled in favor of a White farmer from Florida, blocking a Biden administration debt relief plan for farmers of color. File Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo

June 24 (UPI) -- A federal judge in Florida has blocked a debt relief program for farmers of color in response to a lawsuit from a White farmer.

Judge Marcia Morales Howard issued a temporary injunction Wednesday ordering the Agriculture Department to not issue payments under the $4 billion program for "socially disadvantaged" farmers until she is able to rule on the merits of the case.

Howard wrote that the program included in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is "significantly likely" to violate the constitutional rights of Scott Wynn of Florida, who brought the suit.

"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," she wrote. "Indeed, the remedy chosen and provided in Section 1005 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 program identified a socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher as anyone in a group who has been "subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity as members of a group without regard to their individual qualities," according to a House Code.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also said it would determine "on a case-by-case basis whether additional groups qualify under this definition in response to a written request with supporting explanation."

Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Wynn, said the injunction enforced that the government can't use "immutable characteristics like race" to differentiate how it treats people.

"The government can't allow some people to take part in federal programs while denying others based solely on the color of their skin," said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Wen Fa. "The courts have rightfully rejected such discrimination in the past and should do so now."

John Boyd Jr., founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, called the decision a "travesty."

"It is a shame this federal judge clearly doesn't understand what discrimination is. It's Black and other farmers of color who have been discriminated against by USDA in all its program(s). Addressing decades-long discrimination in the debt relief provision is not unconstitutional," he told CNN.

Thursday's ruling was the second time a court sought to block the program after a Wisconsin judge issued a temporary restraining order against the measure in response to a lawsuit from a group of White farmers.

"The government must not be allowed to use its awesome authorities to punish, harm, exclude, prefer, reward or damage its citizens based upon their race or ethnicity," said Stephen Miller, a former White House aide and head of America First Legal, which backed one of the farmer groups in their lawsuit.

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