WASHINGTON — A federal judge in Florida halted the Biden administration’s new debt-relief program for minority farmers on Wednesday.
Judge Marcia Morales Howard, an appointee of President George W. Bush, temporarily blocked the Agriculture Department from implementing a $4 billion program aimed at helping distressed minority farmers on the basis that it likely violates white farmers' rights to equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That argument was backed by several former aides in the Trump White House.
Howard ordered the Agriculture Department not to issue payments under the program for "socially disadvantaged" farmers until she can rule on the merits of the case. She wrote that the program, which is embedded in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan law, is "significantly likely" to violate the constitutional rights of the plaintiff, a white farmer named Scott Wynn.
Her order creates a nationwide injunction against the debt-relief program.
Earlier this month, in a similar case, a Wisconsin judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the program, which covers up to 120 percent of the debts of farmers who are members of groups that have historically been discriminated against based on their race or ethnicity. Across the country, several white farmers have filed lawsuits, at least one of which is backed by America First Legal, a group founded by former Trump White House aides.
"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," Stephen Miller, a former White House aide and the head of America First Legal, said in a statement in conjunction with one of the other cases.
Civil rights advocates have expressed concern that other Agriculture Department programs aimed at redressing past discrimination — as well as federal programs outside the scope of farming — could be at risk if federal courts find that the American Rescue Plan's program for socially disadvantaged farmers is unconstitutional.
In her order, Howard noted there are situations in which affirmative action is justified, but she wrote that Congress' debt-relief program fails to meet the criteria for meeting constitutional muster.
"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."
Howard implored the plaintiffs' lawyers and the Justice Department to move swiftly so a more permanent ruling can be made quickly. She instructed them to submit to her a schedule no later than June 29 so she can move toward a decision on the merits of the case.