"I'm very pleased that this has resolved itself," U.S. District judge Paul Friedman said. "It will provide relief to an awful lot of people."
In an opinion filed in the case, Friedman deemed fair a proposed settlement that provides a system of compensation for black farmers who joined a class-action lawsuit claiming that they can prove racial bias in decisions related to Agriculture Department programs and support.
"Historical discrimination cannot be undone," Friedman wrote, citing a basis to establish payments "for the broken promise to those African-American farmers and their descendants."
As many as 68,000 African-American farmers who filed between 1999 and 2008 would apply for one of two forms of relief: "Track A" for a qualified claimant would lead to an uncontested payout of $50,000 after taxes, and "Track B" could yield up to $250,000 for damages that are substantiated by documents and other evidence.
"So many farmers had given up hope that this would ever come to pass," said John Boyd, the head of the National Black Farmers Association.
Boyd said that "It's gonna take about a year to run all the farmers through the system, each case will have to be looked at in a forum that's also looked at by the court. Once the cases are checked, then the farmers start to get their money."
President Obama said in a statement that the settlement "is another important step forward in addressing an unfortunate chapter in USDA's civil rights history. This agreement will provide overdue relief and justice to African-American farmers and bring us closer to the ideals of freedom and equality that this country was founded on."
Friedman recalled details of presiding over the Pigford v. Glickman case in the 1990s, named after Tim Pigford, a black farmer who claimed racial bias in applications for USDA programs and financing.
"The farmers didn't think anything would come of it. They had been disappointed over the years by the government," Friedman said, "yet 16,000 of them collected something like $1.1 billion in that case."
Word spread that the government was willing to pay reparations, but other farmers who had valid claims of bias had missed the deadline to file. Friedman said Congress and the president then extended the statute of limitations "to get these disappointed people back in the case."
Boyd said the problem now is making sure farmers who became "late filers" are now aware the settlement is ready to go.
"Some of these guys were in their 60s and maybe by now have passed away," Boyd said. "Their family needs to know that if Daddy filed, they can still pursue his claim."
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who in recent years easily acknowledged a history of racial bias among federal and local staff members in managing farm programs, said that he is "thrilled by the court's approval so we can continue turning the page on this sad chapter in USDA history."
Friedman, reflecting on having spent more than 10 years on the case, said a documented history of African-American farming is a side benefit from all the research that has gone into "Pigford I" and "Pigford II," as the follow-up case became known.
With the two Pigford cases come details on the farming lives of tens of thousands of African-Americans that Friedman said will stand as "a case history of the claimants parents and grandparents." He said historians and lawyers will figure out how to make that record public while respecting privacy concerns.
Paul Courson, CNN
Read the full announcement at: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/10/28/us/black-farmers/?hpt=us_c2###
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