Hearing of the U. S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties
Hearing on: H.R. 558, the "African-American Farmers Benefits Relief Act of 2007" and H.R. 899, "Pigford Claims Remedy Act of 2007"
Floor Statement of Senator Chuck Grassley on
Thank you Mr. Chairman. I would also like to thank the Chairman of the Crime Subcommittee, Chairman Scott, as well as the Chairman of the full Committee, Chairman Conyers, and Congressman Davis for their support of this important issue. I would also like to thank the hard work of Congressman Chabot and his staff for the work they have put into this legislation that we are considering today.
People often ask me why in the world a Senator from Iowa would get involved in this issue. To be honest with you, I know of one black farmer in Iowa. But, Justice knows little about state lines. And, my state has a long history of supporting African Americans dating back to the Underground Railroad. I see no reason to stop that trend.
Ironically, as the United States Department of Agriculture has expanded in size and influence over the last several decades, the number of Black farmers in this country has declined dramatically. In 1920, there were more than 900,000 Black farmers owning or operating more than 16 million acres of land. Today, statistics reveal that fewer than 18,000 Black farmers own or operate less than 3 million acres.
In 1997, aggrieved Black farmers came together to hold the United States Department of Agriculture accountable for the systematic discriminatory treatment in the administration of loans and other credit opportunities under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.
Unlike previous unsuccessful lawsuits, the U.S. District Court certified and consolidated the Pigford and Brewington cases as one class action lawsuit, giving aggrieved plaintiffs hope for the first time in many decades. This decision prompted USDA to agree to resolve these claims expeditiously, the result of which is the Pigford Consent Decree. At the time, the Pigford Consent Decree was the largest racial discrimination settlement in our nation's history and expectations were high once again that another turning point in the documented plight of the Black farmers had occurred. The Consent Decree was intended to provide a swift resolution for the claims of discrimination that had gone unaddressed for far too long.
Despite these good intentions, the expeditious resolution of tens of thousands of claims has not occurred. Testimony before the House Constitution Subcommittee revealed many unanticipated problems with the Consent Decree, some of which have impacted the ability of many farmers to file timely claims. In particular, the Committee was made aware that more than 65,000 potential claimants who requested entry into the Consent Decree by the court-ordered September 15, 2000 deadline, more than half did not have actual notice of the settlement, and were denied the opportunity to have determinations made on the merits of their claims.
Thus, more than 75,000 farmers once again have been shut out of a process that was created to address their discrimination complaints and are left without any recourse or opportunity to purse their claims.
H.R. 899 provides those aggrieved claimants who filed late claim petitions with the court-appointed Arbitrator before December 31, 2005, with a new opportunity. H.R. 899 is intended to provide some small measure of justice to remedy past injustices.
In creating this new cause of action, it is my hope that the U.S. District Court would embrace this opportunity and construe it in the remedial spirit in which it was intended. In his latest opinion, District Court Judge Friedman stated that " Legislatures . . . can take steps that judges cannot. If Congress believes that burdens are unfair or that a significant number of African-American farmers despite extraordinary efforts to reach them - never received notice . . . then it surely has the means at its disposal to correct these wrongs. Legislative solutions are not unprecedented . . . the Court is confident Congress could devise the means to provide relief for these farmers."
With this opinion in mind, it is my hope that the Court would liberally construe this cause of action, applying the same "substantial evidence" standard that was utilized in the Consent Decree and affording those farmers who meet the criteria with an opportunity to expeditiously resolve their complaints through a process similar to, or within, that process established by the Consent Decree.
In 1998, Congress waived the applicable statute of limitations that would have barred eligible claimants from filing a complaint under the original Consent Decree. H.R. 899 provides similar assistance enabling those with meritorious claims to have their day of justice.
I was pleased to offer a Senate Companion to HR. 899 along with Senators Obama, Kennedy, and Biden.
I want to thank you Mr. Chairman for allowing me to testify before the Committee this morning.