Judge allows Federation of Southern Co-ops to intervene in debt relief lawsuit

A $4bn US federal debt relief package aimed at addressing historic economic injustice against black farmers is being blocked by lawsuits

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives been granted a motion to intervene in a lawsuit which is blocking a US federal debt relief programme for black farmers.

In 2020, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted US$4bn in debt relief payments to black farmers, in a bid to reverse long-standing economic injustices, but this has been blocked by lawsuits on behalf of white farmers who claim the measure is discriminatory.

One of the lawsuits has been brought in Texas by Stephen Miller, a former Trump advisor, against agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack – and the Federation has been fighting to make sure the voices and interests of black farmers are heard directly in court.

After its motion to intervene was denied by the lower court, the Federation went last month to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit – which unanimously granted its motion.

The case – Miller v Vilsack – will be sent back to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas to allow the Federation to formally enter the litigation as co-defendants with the USDA.

Federation executive director Cornelius Blanding said: “The USA’s administration, under secretary Vilsack’s leadership, has consistently expressed a commitment to racial equity. Working together as co-defendants of the constitutionality of the debt relief programme will strengthen our shared goal of seeing the programme fully implemented as originally announced.” 

“This is a critical decision,” said Dania Davy, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation. “For the first time since these lawsuits … started to be filed, this appellate court was the first to seriously consider the devastating impact of the delayed implementation of the debt relief program on our member-farmers.

“By guaranteeing the Federation’s right to intervene, the court ensured that the ongoing, race-based discrimination our member-farmers continue to face can be entered as evidence in the litigation which will significantly strengthen the defence of this programme’s constitutionality.” 

The Department of Justice, on behalf of Mr Vilsack, has continued its defence of the debt relief programme and filed itsmotion for summary judgement asking the judge to allow the programme to be implemented without a lengthy trial. 

The Federation says it will continue to defend the debt relief and, alongside its work with the USDA, its own legal counsel, partners, and coalitions to protect its member-farmers – “who should have received this debt relief last year from the looming threat of foreclosure and land loss”.

Other recent advocacy work reported by the Federation includes assistance with the development of a co-operative more than 400 oyster fishers “as they fight against racial and economic injustice”. The Federation attended a demonstration at the the Austin HQ of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), which had been closing fishing bays “without consideration or input from the mostly Hispanic community of fisher-folk, by using tactics such as not providing materials in Spanish” – in violation of civil rights law.

“The fisher-folk are ultimately fighting for the long-term sustainability of oysters while protecting their right to earn a living,” says the Federation, which cited local concerns that working class white and Latino fishermen and women are being driving from the bays by monied interests.

It adds: “There are no easy solutions to this problem, but it has united fishermen across racial lines and along the coast … The two days of protest have provided an important lesson to the fishermen – standing co-operatively together makes them stronger. They’re realising their collective futures are tied and if they cooperate, they can win.”

Last month, the Federation also held a listening session with 15 black Georgia farmer-members as part of its Advocacy Institute to hear directly from them on what it will take to keep them on their farms.

The Federation holds its 55th annual meeting from August 18-20.