US House approves minority farmer settlements

US House approves minority farmer settlements

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[JURIST] The US House of Representatives [official website] on Tuesday voted 256-152 to authorize settlements between the US government and minority farmers for alleged discrimination. The settlements include [AP report] $3.4 billion to resolve claims that the Department of the Interior (DOI) [official website] mismanaged funds [DOI materials] held in trust for American Indian landowners [JURIST news archive], and $1.2 billion for African American farmers claiming they suffered racial discrimination in US Department of Agriculture (USDA) [official website] loan programs. Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the Indian Trust class action lawsuit, praised [press release] Tuesday’s vote, saying:

By Congress placing a seal of approval on this settlement, a monumental step has been taken to remove a stain on our national honor, and create a better future for Indians as our government begins to make some amends for grave past injustices. This unprecedented Congressional action paves the way for a brighter and better relationship with government. There is still much to be done in trust reform and improving trustee performance by the Department of Interior, but this huge step makes those other steps possible. While the money is not as much as we believe we are entitled to…the settlement will be recognized by Native People as an acknowledgment by the federal government that it wronged them by its mismanagement of Indian money and Indian lands.

The House has twice approved the settlements, which have been held up in the US Senate [official website] until being approved [JURIST report] last week. President Barack Obama has stated his intent to sign the bill into law [press release].

In October, a judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] extended the deadline [JURIST report] for Congress to approve the Indian Trust settlement to January 7, 2011, marking the seventh time [case materials] an extension had been granted since the settlement was reached [JURIST report] in December 2009. The settlements arose from two cases. Cobell originally filed litigation in 1996 related to DOI’s alleged mismanagement of the Indian Trust, which was established by Congress in 1887 to hold proceeds from government-arranged leases to Indian lands. Although it was determined that the US government had not engaged in fraud, it was held that DOI unreasonably delayed accounting of the trust. In 1999, black farmers alleged in Pigford v. Glickman [BFAA backgrounder] that they were being denied USDA farm loans or forced to wait longer for loan approval than were non-minority farmers. The USDA and Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] announced a $1.2 billion settlement [JURIST report] in February.