March 25, 2021
LANSING – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel applauded the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia’s dismissal of an appeal to strike down the Trump Administration’s attempt to revoke food assistance for approximately 700,000 Americans.
In January 2020, AG Nessel joined a multistate coalition led by AG Karl A. Racine of the District of Columbia and AG Letitia James of New York 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 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 Michigan residents who rely on the program.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) initially appealed that decision but on Monday, the DOJ asked the Court 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.
“Limiting food assistance in the midst of a global pandemic would have been cruel,” Nessel said. “This is an important victory and I applaud the dismissal of this appeal. Now is the time to eliminate barriers to this vital food assistance program relied upon by so many Michigan residents.”
Background on the Litigation
SNAP has served as the country’s primary response to hunger since 1977. 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 just 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 lived 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, the 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— the 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 states.
In January 2020, Michigan joined with 20 states, the District of Columbia and New York City to file suit, asserting that the rule undermined Congress’ intent for the food-stamp program, and that the 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. 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.
Expertise Leads to Additional SNAP Action
Based on the expertise developed defending SNAP from the Trump Administration’s attempted cuts, Attorney General Nessel joined 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 here.
Joining Attorney General Nessel in sending this letter are the Attorneys General from Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, 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.
A copy of the Court’s order dismissing the appeal is available here.
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 multistate action was consolidated with an action brought on behalf of private plaintiffs by the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.
Joining Attorney General Nessel in this coalition are the Attorneys General of California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia, along with the City of New York.