President Joe Biden’s plan to give racial reparations to black farmers suffered another legal blow Thursday when a federal judge ruled part of his coronavirus law violates the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.
Biden’s legislation styled the reparations program as debt forgiveness for non-white farmers. However, Chief Judge S. Thomas Anderson of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee issued a preliminary injunction blocking the program.
The injunction prevents the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from “erasing the debts of those farmers falling within the specified racial classifications … providing a payment in an amount up to 120 percent of the outstanding indebtedness, without any consideration of need.”
Section 1005 of the coronavirus bill was to “provide debt relief to ‘socially disadvantaged’ farmers holding certain USDA loans in an attempt to remedy “the lingering effects of the unfortunate but well-documented history of racial discrimination” in USDA loan programs.
“At the outset, the Court notes that four cases in particular have informed its decision, including Vitolo (enjoining the restaurant relief portion of the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act), which is binding precedent for this Court,” the opinion states.
Vitolo was written by Judge Amul Thapar of the United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, a President Donald Trump appointee.
The Anderson decision also reads, in part:
The parties also agree that, because Section 1005 on its face makes a distinction among applicants for relief on the basis of race, it must satisfy strict scrutiny – that is, it must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest and reiterating that all racial classifications [imposed by government] … must be analyzed by a reviewing court under strict scrutiny.) Under strict scrutiny, the government has the burden of proving that racial classifications are narrowly tailored measures that further compelling governmental interests. When race-based action is necessary to further a compelling governmental interest, such action does not violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection so long as the narrow-tailoring requirement is also satisfied. Thus, the government must adopt the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling state interest rather than a means substantially related to a sufficiently important interest.
Thapar wrote in Vitolo: Because “[g]overnment policies that classify people by race are presumptively invalid,” and “[t]o overcome that presumption, the government must show that favoring one race over another is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.”
“Here, Defendants cannot meet the first prong because the evidence does not show that Section 1005 targets a specific episode of past discrimination,” Anderson wrote. “Defendants have pointed to statistical and anecdotal evidence of a history of discrimination by the USDA. But it is well- settled that a ‘generalized assertion that there has been past discrimination in an entire industry.’”
Despite the importance of eliminating the vestiges of prior race discrimination, the government’s efforts cannot withstand strict scrutiny, according to the decision.
This case, one of several lawsuits filed by white farmers, ruled in favor of fourth-generation farmer Robert Holman of Union City, Tennessee.
The case is Holman v. Vilsack, No. 1:21-cv-01085 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.
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