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Indian farmers await trial on USDA discrimination

Attorneys representing Indian farmers and ranchers in a class action discrimination lawsuit were back in court on Thursday to seek resolution of the seven-year-old case.

Joe Sellers, the lead attorney, said it was urgent to hold a trial on claims that the U.S. Department of Agriculture engaged in systemic discrimination against tribal members. "We have clients who are dying," he told the court. "We have people who have been forced out of ranching and farming."

U.S. District Judge G. Sullivan wasn't unsympathetic to the hardships. He said everyone, including American Indians, should have their day in court.

But Sullivan said a trial won't happen any time soon. He strongly indicated that he was unwilling to split the case into different parts -- as the plaintiffs' lawyers have proposed -- in order to bring the discrimination claims forward.

"It's going to be one trial," he said. "We don't have the resources [for multiple trials]. I wish we did."

Sullivan, however, said he wants the parties to work together in hopes of streamlining the case. Currently, the plaintiffs and USDA are in discovery mode, obtaining documents and taking depositions of key witnesses.

But since discovery could take at least a year, Sullivan encouraged the plaintiffs to consider changing their lawsuit. "Maybe your clients need to think of foregoing some of these claims," he told Sellers.

During the hearing in Washington, D.C., Sellers was proposing that one part of the case -- on USDA's "disparate treatment" of Indian farmers and ranchers -- go first. Once liability is proven, he said a trial could be held on damages and other claims in the case related to USDA loans.

The disparate treatment claim is the "centerpiece" of the lawsuit, known as Keepseagle v. USDA, Sellers aid.

The Department of Justice vehemently objected to the strategy. "That is trying this case three times," said attorney Felicia L. Chambers. "This is premature, it's burdensome," she added.

Chambers also said it was "patently unfair" that some of the named plaintiffs have been unable for depositions. Sellers countered that one of them has terminal cancer and another is dealing with mental health issues.

Sullivan said he would give the plaintiffs one more month to address the matter. If the health issues can't be resolved, Sellers said he would identify new named plaintiffs.

The Keepseagle case was filed in November 1999 on behalf of 19,000 Indian farmers and ranchers. It came on the heels of the Clinton administration's settlement with African-American farmers who had raised similar claims of discrimination.

Women and Hispanic farmers also filed lawsuits. But advocates say racism against American Indians is the worst in the USDA. They say Indian farmers were regularly denied loans, causing them to lose their farms, ranches, livestock and property.

"It is almost impossible as a Native American to get a loan," Alexander Pires, a lawyer who handled the African-American lawsuit told a Senate committee in September 2000. "It's a very racist organization. It is white men running everything."

Recent Court Decision:
Keepseagle v. USDA (March 23, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Keepseagle Race Discrimination -
Civil Rights, USDA -