Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Black Farmers Bias Suit Entangled In Party Politics

John Boyd Speaking With Alabama Gubernatorial Candidate Artur Davis In Montgomery Alabama, 2/10/2010

Black Farmers Bias Suit Entangled In Party Politics
Fri, May 7 2010

By Jasmin Melvin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid criticized Republicans on Friday for blocking a measure that would compensate black farmers engaged in a decades-old discrimination suit against the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The measure, included as part of an amendment to a disaster assistance bill, would have appropriated $1.15 billion to uphold one of the largest civil rights settlements in history.

"Republican obstruction denied justice to those who only seek fair settlement of their grievances," Reid said in a statement.

He had requested unanimous consent to take up the bill, but was blocked by an objection from Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

"By dropping a racially-charged measure into a $5.1 billion disaster bill at the last minute he was essentially threatening senators to give their immediate consent or risk being demonized," Coburn responded in a statement.

The historic $1.25 billion settlement of the case known as Pigford II would compensate black farmers for years of mistreatment which left them out of federal farm loan and assistance programs. The 2008 Farm Bill provided $100 million of the funds, but the rest of the funding for the deal reached in February must be approved by Congress.


If no progress is made by May 31, the farmers could take the case to court or go back to the negotiating table to hash out a new settlement as they originally sought $2.5 billion.

"Each week or month of waiting means more black farmers will not live to see a resolution of their cases," said John Boyd Jr., head of the National Black Farmers Association.

Boyd, who attended two funerals in the past few weeks for farmers who were eligible to receive compensation, said many of the farmers are elderly and urgently need the money, especially now that it is planting season.

"We see it as a direct hit to black farmers," Boyd said. "We are baffled why Senator Tom Coburn, whose own constituents have sought justice in both the black farmers and Native American farmers cases, would block today's request."

The original Pigford class action lawsuit, named after North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, was settled in 1999.

The first case awarded more than $1 billion in payments and debt relief to black farmers, but tens of thousands of farmers not aware of the settlement missed the filing deadline.

One way to "circumvent all the headache," Boyd said, would be to compensate farmers from a fund used to pay plaintiffs who win suits against the U.S. government. This would require amending the settlement and garnering approval from the Justice Department, but would not require congressional action.

"It's one of the reasons why I've been pressing the president to come to the table," Boyd said. "That's something he can help do without Congress even being involved."

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

© Thomson Reuters 2010. All rights reserved.

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