WASHINGTON – Eight years after the government reached an agreement with black farmers over decades of discrimination, Democrats say the deal is broken and want to give farmers another chance at compensation.
Lawmakers began hearings Thursday on two proposals aimed at addressing a huge portion of claims that were denied because farmers missed a filing deadline. Many farmers have said they didn't know about it.
“Let's put all this in perspective: 90 percent of the claims filed under (the settlement) were denied,” Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., said at a house Judiciary Committee hearing. “There is proof positive that (the settlement) hasn't worked.”
At issue is the 1999 settlement of a class-action lawsuit by black farmers – mostly from the South – who alleged the Agriculture Department routinely denied them loans because of their race. The department agreed to pay at least $50,000 to farmers who could show they faced discrimination.
About two-thirds of the 22,442 farmers who filed have won claims, and the government has paid almost $950 million in compensation, according to a court-appointed monitor.
A vast majority – more than 63,000 claims – have not been heard because farmers missed the filing deadline years ago.
Davis is sponsoring a bill that would allow farmers who didn't receive notice of the deadline to refile their claims. A competing measure – sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., in the House and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in the Senate – would allow the denied farmers to go back to court.
Similar bills were introduced in the last Congress but stalled. Now in control, Democrats vowed to make the issue a priority this year.
Noting that the vast majority of civil rights claims never get to trial, Davis argued that Scott's proposal might offer only false hope. “Ultimately, I don't think it's enough to say, 'Go back to court and get in line,'” Davis said.
Scott countered that Davis' legislation, which calls for more aggressive notification and would help claimants' avoid foreclosure, might be too much to get through Congress. And, he said, farmers seem to want another chance in court.
“The lawyers who are representing the clients have indicated to us that if they have an opportunity to go back to court they can win,” he said.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said the organization supports Scott's bill, in part because he thinks it has the best chance of passing Congress.