A white Florida farmer is challenging part of the recent COVID-19 stimulus law in federal court because it hands out federal benefits based on the color of a farmer’s skin.
The civil rights lawsuit, Wynn v. Vilsack, was filed in federal court in Florida on May 18, by the Sacramento, California-based Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a national public interest law firm. Tom Vilsack is being sued in his official capacity as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
The plaintiff, Scott Wynn, is a white man who has been producing sweet potatoes, corn, soybeans, peanuts, and cattle on his own farm in Jennings, Florida since 2006.
Like many farmers, Wynn has suffered economic harm as a result of the CCP virus, which causes the disease COVID-19. A steep drop in beef prices and difficulty in finding farm workers reduced his income over the past year, nearly all of which went toward repaying federal farm loans.
Signed into law March 11, the American Rescue Plan Act, Public Law 117-2, allows the federal government to distribute $1.9 trillion in federal funds. Section 1005 of the Act directs the secretary to “provide a payment in an amount up to 120 percent of the outstanding indebtedness of each socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher as of January 1, 2021.”
Section 1005 “assumes farmers and ranchers are socially disadvantaged for no other reason than their membership in a racial group,” and “categorically excludes other farmers and ranchers from loan assistance if they do not belong in a ‘socially disadvantaged racial group,’” according to the legal complaint.
The program allegedly violates the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which requires the U.S. government to practice equal protection.
Farmers and ranchers who are black, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic, Asian, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander are eligible for loan assistance, regardless of whether they have suffered any racial discrimination in obtaining farm loans, farming, or elsewhere and regardless of their present economic circumstances.
PLF attorney Glenn Roper told The Epoch Times in an interview that the program, which he described as “racially discriminatory,” is unconstitutional.
“Whenever government is involved in making racial distinctions and drawing lines, distributing benefits or imposing burdens on the basis of an immutable characteristic, that’s dangerous and in our view unconstitutional,” Roper said.
“Supreme Court has held that if government is making racial distinctions it needs to pass what is called strict scrutiny which is the most rigorous sort of evaluation that the courts do. You have to have a compelling governmental interest in making racial distinctions and then it has to be narrowly tailored so it is the most restrictive application to get at that compelling interest and in our view it doesn’t meet either of those tests.”
The program brings to mind an earlier program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that led to a class action lawsuit known as Pigford v. Glickman, that was settled in 1999. Black farmers claimed they were discriminated against in the agency’s allocation of farm loans and assistance.
The government agreed to pay $50,000 to black claimants who said the USDA loan administrators discriminated against them. The proof required was minimal, critics said, which led to fraud. In 2010 Congress appropriated $1.2 billion for claims that were filed late, in addition to the estimated $1 billion already paid out. Critics said the Obama administration dispensed settlement funds using even looser evidentiary standards than those that applied in the original settlement.
The program in the American Rescue Plan Act “is one of the clearest examples of a race-based program that is not narrowly tailored for the interest that it is supposedly protecting,” Roper said.
“In our view there is just no fit between saying there was past discrimination in getting loans and so to remedy that we’re going to forgive all the people who got loans and are minorities.”
Wynn holds multiple farm loans, including operating loans from the USDA Farm Service Agency, that would be eligible for loan assistance under Section 1005 if he were black, American Indian-Alaska Native, Hispanic, Asian, or Hawaiian-Pacific Islander.
“But Wynn is categorically excluded from loan assistance under Section 1005 because he is white,” according to the legal complaint. The section’s race-based preferences run contrary to the principle of equal treatment under the law, according to PLF.
The “right to equality before the law” is “a bedrock American principle,” the law firm states. “Government violates that when it treats people differently based on irrelevant, immutable characteristics like race.”
The USDA press office told The Epoch Times the disputed program will continue to operate.
“We will review this complaint with the Department of Justice and will continue to move forward on debt relief for qualified socially disadvantaged borrowers under the American Rescue Plan,” the USDA said via email.