A federal judge in Wisconsin has ordered a temporary halt to a $4 billion federal loan relief program aimed at addressing longstanding inequities for farmers of color after a legal challenge by white farmers who argue the policy discriminates against them.
Judge William Griesbach found in an order issued Thursday that the white farmers "are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim" that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "use of race-based criteria in the administration of the program violates their right to equal protection under the law."
He issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Department of Agriculture from proceeding with the loan relief payments.
A department spokesman, Matt Herrick, told NBC News, "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. When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress.”
The plaintiffs in the case, 12 farmers from nine states, had filed suit against the USDA over the roughly $4 billion set aside for loan forgiveness for "socially disadvantaged" farmers and ranchers in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden in March.
The Agriculture Department has interpreted “socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher” to mean individuals “who are one or more of the following: Black/African American, American Indian, Alaskan native, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or Pacific Islander,” the judge noted.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Washington Post that the program was needed to address longstanding inequities.
“For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt,” Vilsack said.
The Post, citing USDA data, reported that only 45,000 of the country's 3.4 million farmers are Black, down from 1 million a century ago.
Department officials said about 17,000 farmers of color currently qualify for the assistance.
In his ruling, Griesbach, who was nominated to the bench by George W. Bush, said the USDA is using the wrong benchmarks.
"Aside from a summary of statistical disparities, defendants have no evidence of intentional discrimination by the USDA in the implementation of the recent agriculture subsidies and pandemic relief efforts," he wrote, describing the policy as "a loan-forgiveness program purportedly intended to provide economic relief to disadvantaged individuals without actually considering the financial circumstances of the applicant."
"Congress can implement race-neutral programs to help farmers and ranchers in need of financial assistance, such as requiring individual determinations of disadvantaged status or giving priority to loans of farmers and ranchers that were left out of the previous pandemic relief funding," Griesbach wrote. "But it cannot discriminate on the basis of race."
Instead of solving a problem, the government was creating another one, the judge said.
"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," Griesbach wrote.
The decision was hailed by Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel for the conservative Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, which is representing the white farmers. He told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the judge recognized that the USDA plan "raises grave constitutional concerns and threatens our clients with irreparable harm."
The reverse-discrimination argument has been embraced by allies of former President Donald Trump, including his former senior adviser Stephen Miller. A legal group founded by Miller and former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows is backing an action similar to the Wisconsin suit in Texas.