Temporary Restraining Order Halts USDA Loan Program for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

On Thursday, the Wisconsin Eastern District Court granted the plaintiffs’ request for a Temporary Restraining Order, halting the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) implementation of a loan forgiveness program earmarked for “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.” The plaintiffs argued that the loan program goes against the equal rights clause of the Constitution because the program is only available to farmers who are not white. 

The decision and order granting the motion explained that the lawsuit was filed by 12 white farmers from nine separate states against Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 alleging that it did not provide them equal protection because eligibility for loan forgiveness is “based solely on racial classifications.” The program allows for up to 120 percent of an outstanding loan to be paid to farmers who are members of a “socially disadvantaged group” which has “been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice.”

According to a notice in the similar lawsuit, Miller v. Vilsack, which has been previously covered by Law Street Media, this matter is one of five lawsuits with similar allegations filed against the USDA and its secretary Tom Vilsack. Each of these lawsuits was filed in a separate court. Hearings on the plaintiffs motion for a preliminary injunction in two of these cases is scheduled for later in June

In this lawsuit, the temporary restraining order was requested prior to a preliminary injunction in order to address the issue “on an emergency basis,” and “preserve the status quo pending the complete briefing and consideration of a motion for a preliminary injunction,” the order explained. Under Thursday’s order, the loan program will not be able to proceed until the injunction in this matter is discussed. 

The court ruled that the “Defendants lack a compelling interest for the racial classifications,” citing that the USDA has not claimed that the program addresses “a specific episode of past or present discrimination,” but instead point to anecdotal evidence of a discriminatory history. The court said that the defendant has cited recent prejudice through other COVID-19 relief actions, but that they have not shown “evidence of intentional discrimination.” 

The court also said that the USDA has not shown that the program is narrowly tailored. After further reasoning presented in the filing, the court determined that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their claims and that the plaintiffs should be granted a temporary restraining order. Further, the court decided that a nation-wide injunction was more suited than one limited to the plaintiffs. 

“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,” the order said. The court explained that programs could give priority to farmers left out from other pandemic relief programs, or provide better outreach without discriminating based on race. 

The plaintiffs are represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.