A small slice of justice for minority farmers

Sunday, November 28, 2010; 9:08 PM

AFRICAN AMERICANS and Native Americans, the most persecuted and exploited groups in this nation's history, are on the verge of securing a small slice of justice.

Last week, the Senate approved a settlement that would provide $1.15 billion to compensate black farmers who were denied U.S. government loans and assistance because of their race. Lawmakers also approved a $3.4 billion payout to thousands of Native American landowners who, with their forebears, have been cheated out of oil and gas royalties since the late 19th century. The House, which passed earlier versions of the deals, should enthusiastically and quickly embrace these final settlements.

A federal judge must approve the settlements and determine that they are fair before any of the plaintiffs receives a penny. This process is likely to take at least six months, but it is a blink of an eye compared with the decades some plaintiffs have already waited.

In 1999, the government settled a class action brought by black farmers only to find that bureaucratic foul-ups left tens of thousands of farmers out of the money. Congress passed a well-intentioned fix in 2008, but it was flawed also; that made necessary the $1.25 billion settlement this year between the farmers and the Obama administration. The Senate amended the deal to require lawyers for the black farmers to oversee what is likely to be a lengthy and intricate distribution process, and it reduced the amount to be paid to $1.15 billion.

Late last year, Native Americans entered into a $3.4 billion settlement agreement with the administration after an unusually contentious and complex 14-year court battle. The Senate also tinkered with the terms of this settlement, which now includes $1.5 billion for payments to individuals and roughly $1.9 billion for the government to buy heavily subdivided plots owned by individuals that will be turned over to the pertinent Indian tribes.

Between $50 million and $100 million in legal fees is likely to be paid out in each settlement. It is an astronomical sum that gives pause in large part because no individual client will collect anywhere near that much. But the settlement should not be scuttled because of this. The lawyers in the Native American case, for example, have put in two decades of work without being paid and are slated to receive a contingency fee of only 3 percent - far less than what is usually awarded. These types of cases would probably never move forward unless advocates had some reason to believe they would recoup their investments in time and money. The federal judge overseeing the case has discretion to ensure that lawyers are compensated fairly but not excessively.


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