The $4 billion debt relief program enacted by Congress to address past racial discrimination of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers suffered another legal defeat Wednesday when a federal judge in Florida halted payments nationwide.

In issuing a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard said the program is “untethered to an attempt to remedy any specific instance of past discrimination.”

Instead, the program “appears to create an inflexible, race-based discriminatory program that is not tailored to make the individuals who experienced discrimination whole, increase participation among [socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers] (SDFRs) in USDA programs, or [eradicate] the evils of discrimination that remain following Congress’ prior efforts to remedy the same,” she said.

The debt relief program, which is designed to provide payments equaling 120% of debt held by SDFRs, had already been stopped by a temporary restraining order issued by a federal judge in Wisconsin earlier this month in a similar case. White farmer Scott Wynn brought the case against the government in Florida, also arguing that the program violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Howard said while her injunction “prohibits the distribution of payments, loan assistance, or debt relief,” it does not stop the government from continuing to work on the program “in the event it is ultimately found to be constitutionally permissible.”

In response to the Wisconsin ruling, USDA said it would continue to receive and process applications "so that when the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress."

The section of the American Rescue Plan setting up the program “is tailored to benefit only those SDFRs who succeeded in receiving qualifying farm loans from USDA, but the evidence of discrimination provided by the government says little regarding how this particular group of SDFRs has been the subject of past or ongoing discrimination,” Howard said.

In her decision, Howard said she had proceeded with “great caution” in deciding whether a nationwide injunction was warranted, but “despite exploring any possible more narrow option, the court cannot identify any relief short of enjoining the distribution of Section 1005’s payments and debt relief that will maintain the status quo and provide plaintiff the opportunity to obtain any relief at all.”

Howard criticized the evidence supplied by the government to defend the scope of the program, which she said “simultaneously manages to be both overinclusive and underinclusive.”

The judge said there was little evidence to support “the magnitude of relief,” saying it “appears to duplicate or in some instances exceed the relief provided to those who actually suffered the well-documented historic discrimination Congress sought to remedy through prior settlements.”

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She was referring in part to settlements reached in the Pigford litigation that resulted in payments of more than $2 billion to Black farmers. The government had argued the Pigford settlements were insufficient to remedy historical discrimination.

But Section 1005 “also appears to be underinclusive,” Howard said. “It fails to provide any relief to those who suffered the brunt of the discrimination identified by the government. It provides no remedy at all for an SDFR who was unable to obtain a farm loan due to discriminatory practices or who no longer has qualifying farm loans as a result of prior discrimination.”

There also is “little evidence that the government gave serious consideration to, or tried, race-neutral alternatives to Section 1005,” Howard said.

The judge said she understood her injunction “certainly impacts the SDFRs counting on the debt relief” but said she had “carefully balanced the equities and is convinced that they favor the halting of a program that is significantly likely to violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law.”

Howard discounted evidence that trade relief payments under the Market Facilitation Program and pandemic relief payments under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments went overwhelmingly to white farmers.

‘Here, the statistical discrepancies presented by the government can be explained by non-race related factors — farm size and crops grown — and the court finds it unlikely that this evidence, standing alone, would constitute a strong basis for the need for a race-based remedial program,” she said.

Of the legislation’s inclusion of debt relief for “Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders,” Howard said “the evidence of prior discrimination by the USDA in farm loans, programs and services appears to be exceedingly thin.”

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