Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, filed a reply in a Northern District of Texas lawsuit on Tuesday to the preliminary injunction granted in favor of the plaintiffs. Vilsack explained that although the court, and at least two others addressing similar lawsuits, have halted the USDA program, it is continuing to take steps to set up the loan forgiveness program for farmers and ranchers of minority races.
The lawsuit was filed by Sid Miller and other white farmers and ranchers in Texas, they alleged that a debt relief program approved by Congress as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, discriminated against them based on race and breached federal laws and the U.S. Constitution. The court granted the injunction and class certification, noting that the requirements for both were met and that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed.
A group of 27 advocacy organizations as amicus curiae and the USDA have argued in response to the lawsuit that the loan program provides needed relief and is merited because previous programs from the USDA have discriminated against farmers and ranchers of minority races, or those which are “socially disadvantaged.”
Vilsack’s reply aimed to clarify the scope of the preliminary injunction, and noted that this is “the third such injunction issued by a district court,” citing one in the Eastern District of Wisconsin and another in the Middle District of Florida. Because of these previous orders, the USDA explained that it has not been issuing payments under the program, however, it has “taken preparatory administrative steps,” with the approval of those two courts so that if the injunctions are lifted it can quickly begin the program. The USDA said that according to its reading of the order in this case, it can continue this course of action but that it filed the notice to ensure that the plaintiffs and the court were aware of its intent.
The USDA alleged that although the plaintiffs had opposed some of the preparatory steps, that their opposition “is not related to their assertions of harm in this lawsuit or their requested preliminary relief.” Further, the defendant claimed that since the preliminary injunction stopping it from making payments, that the plaintiffs would not be able to identify an injury that would lead the court to stop them from taking these initial steps to set up the program.
Specifically, the USDA said that it is sending notices to farmers and ranchers who have loans eligible for the relief to inform them and collecting information so that it can implement the program in the future. Although the plaintiffs claimed that considering race when sending the letters is unconstitutional, the USDA purported that the plaintiffs have not demonstrated that they would be injured by this.
The notice said that the plaintiffs “are not entitled to expand their requested relief now in a way that would not serve to benefit them and would only serve to harm the Government and the minority farmers who stand to benefit from Section 1005.”