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Federal judge grants

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Federal judge grants halt to USDA debt relief for farmers of color

A federal judge in Florida on Wednesday night struck a new blow against the Agriculture Department’s historic debt relief program for farmers of color by issuing the first preliminary injunction amid a series of court battles.

The order prohibits USDA from distributing any payments in the program until there is a final decision. Earlier this year, Congress authorized the USDA to forgive loans of an estimated 16,000 minority farmers.

U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Morales Howard, an appointee of President George W. Bush based in Jacksonville, released the 49-page opinion concluding that the program did not appear to be “narrowly tailored” to meet constitutional standards for race-based actions.

What’s happening: USDA is fighting five court battles around the country filed on behalf of white farmers who claim they would otherwise qualify for the debt relief if not for the color of their skin.

Several are being backed by ideological causes, such as one in Wisconsin, which is filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. One in Texas is being led by a group started by former White House adviser Stephen Miller, who served during the Trump administration.

The debt relief program was already on hold after a temporary restraining order was issued in the Wisconsin case nearly two weeks ago. The latest action is more durable, but gives the Biden administration the right to mount an immediate appeal to the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

Who is behind this one: Scott Wynn, a Florida farmer, is represented by a libertarian outfit, the Pacific Legal Foundation, and filed the lawsuit in May claiming the debt relief provision that was included in the Covid relief bill signed into law in March, the American Rescue Plan, is unconstitutional.

Howard concluded that while the intentions of USDA are “laudable” and mandated by Congress, there is also the risk of imposed discrimination on race.

“Congress moved with great speed to address the history of discrimination, but did not move with great care,” the judge’s motion states. The provision of the Covid legislation on debt relief “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 group representing the farmers hailed the ruling.

“The government can’t treat people unequally based on immutable characteristics like race,” Wen Fa, an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, said in a statement.

What’s next: The court’s injunction blocks the distribution of payments but it does not stop USDA from continuing to prepare the debt relief if it is ultimately found to be “constitutionally permissible,” the order says.

Justice Department and USDA spokespeople did not immediately respond to messages Wednesday night seeking comment on the judge’s action.