WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today announced that the federal court of appeals in D.C. dismissed an appeal of a decision striking down the Trump Administration’s attempt to revoke food assistance for approximately 700,000 Americans. In January 2020, AG Racine and New York Attorney General Letitia James co-led a multistate coalition in suing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to challenge a new rule that would have severely limited states’ flexibility to provide food assistance to individuals struggling to find work. Siding with the coalition, Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia temporarily halted parts of the rule in March 2020, and in October she struck down the rule in its entirety, protecting access to SNAP benefits for as many as 20,000 District residents who rely on the program. DOJ initially appealed that decision. But on Monday, the Department asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to dismiss the appeal. The Court did so on Tuesday. As a result, Chief Judge Howell’s decision striking down the rule is final, and the cuts will not go into effect.
“Food assistance is vital for Americans struggling to get by, particularly during the pandemic, and we are grateful that the Biden Administration recognizes that the prior Administration’s heartless attempt to yank those benefits is against the law,” said AG Racine. “The D.C. Circuit’s dismissal vindicates the work of our coalition, which sought to ensure that the federal government plays by the rules, particularly when it tries to hurt our most vulnerable neighbors. I thank Attorney General James, the multistate coalition, the D.C. Department of Human Services, and the Legal Aid Society for the District of Columbia, all of whom were instrumental in achieving this result. Congress must now look at our nutritional assistance programs to ensure that no future administration can attempt cruel benefit cuts.”
Background on the Litigation
SNAP has served as the country’s primary response to hunger since 1977, and a critical part of federal and state efforts to help lift people out of poverty. The program provides access to nutrition for millions of Americans with limited incomes who would otherwise struggle with food insecurity.
While the federal government pays the full cost of SNAP benefits, it shares the costs of administering the program on a 50-50 basis with the states, which operate the program. In its 1996 federal welfare reform law, Congress limited the time period that unemployed able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) could access SNAP benefits to three months in any 36-month period. Still, the law granted states the ability to request waivers for that time limit if the state or part of the state had an unemployment rate above 10 percent, or did not have enough jobs to provide employment for the SNAP recipients who resided there. Congress has reauthorized the statute four times without limiting states’ discretion over these matters—including in the 2018 Farm Bill, in which a bipartisan coalition rejected nearly identical restrictions to those later created by the rule.
Shortly after President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, USDA announced a proposed rule seeking to do what Congress had just expressly rejected. Despite strong opposition from a broad range of stakeholders—including a multistate coalition of Attorneys General led by AG Racine—USDA’s final rule went even further than the initial proposal in restricting state discretion over waivers and exemptions, and would have produced significant obstacles for the states.
In January 2020, 20 states, the District, and New York City—under the leadership of AG Racine and AG James—filed suit, asserting that the rule undermined Congress’ intent for the food-stamp program, and that USDA violated the federal rulemaking process. The coalition asked the Court to halt implementation of the rule immediately to avoid hurting Americans who relied on the program and states that administered it. In March 2020, Chief Judge Howell granted the coalition’s request in part and halted the April 1 implementation of significant portions of the rule while the case proceeded. Chief Judge Howell wrote: “Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential.” In October, Chief Judge Howell issued a 67-page decision striking down the rule in its entirety because the rule violated the federal rulemaking process, contradicted the 2018 Farm Bill and Congressional intent for the food-stamp program, and was poorly reasoned.
DOJ appealed Chief Judge Howell’s decision setting aside the rule. But in a filing on Monday, DOJ asked the Court to dismiss its appeal. The Court did so on Tuesday, leaving Chief Judge Howell’s decision as the final ruling on the matter and effectively preventing implementation of the rule.
A copy of the Court’s order dismissing the appeal is available at: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/SNAP-Order.pdf
AGs Racine and James co-led this coalition joined by Attorneys General from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia, along with the City of New York. Several high-profile organizations filed briefs and declarations supporting the coalition’s arguments, including the U.S. House of Representatives, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Food Research and Action Center, and a broad coalition of legal aid and anti-poverty groups. The case benefited from critical assistance from the D.C. Department of Human Services. The multistate action was consolidated with an action brought on behalf of private plaintiffs by the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.
The Improving Access to Nutrition Act
Based on this work defending SNAP from the Trump Administration’s attempted cuts, AG Racine led a letter to Congress signed by 17 states and New York City on Friday in support of the Improving Access to Nutrition Act. If enacted, the bill would eliminate limitations on the time period during which ABAWDs can access benefits. The letter argues that those limitations have proven ineffective in encouraging employment and serve only to prevent those who cannot find work from accessing essential nutrition. The coalition further notes that the process for seeking waivers and exemptions from the time period due to lack of jobs in an area creates significant administrative burdens on states and that the data needed to show a lack of jobs is not always available. Finally, the letter notes that passage of the Improving Access to Nutrition Act would prevent future administrations from cruel attempts to cut off nutritional assistance.
A copy of the letter is available at:https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/Improving-Access-to-Nutrition-Act_Letter-to-Congress.pdf
Joining AG Racine on this letter were the Attorneys General from Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin, as well as the Corporation Counsel of New York City.
Defending Access to Anti-Hunger Programs
The victory in this case and the letter to Congress are the latest in AG Racine’s work to protect low-income District residents from federal efforts to dismantle the social safety net. AG Racine led efforts opposing other USDA rule changes, including a 24-state comment opposing a proposed rule that would have gutted categorical eligibility for SNAP benefits among those eligible for other assistance programs. AG Racine also joined a coalition of five Attorneys General in a lawsuit challenging the Trump Administration’s “Public Charge Rule,” which was designed to discourage hardworking eligible immigrants and their families from accessing programs like SNAP.