Leigh Stein: Welcome everyone.
Sarah Vogel: Hi. Wow. Oh gosh. It’s fun to see so many people.
Leigh Stein: So welcome everyone to our Coleman Reunion Event. My name is Leigh, I’m Sarah’s book coach. I’ve been helping her with her book, The Farmer’s Lawyer, I’m in town from Connecticut. I’m sitting physically in Bismarck, North Dakota with Sarah [00:01:00] tonight. And we’re so glad you’re here.
If you want to use the chat to tell us where you’re Zooming in from, I’m sure we have people from all over the country tonight, and I’m going to be helping to host tonight’s event as you’re going to meet some of the real people and hear their incredible stories from the book, The Farmer’s Lawyer. So, Sarah, do you want to kick us off with a few words about what tonight means?
Sarah Vogel: Yes. I, I first want to start off by saying that this is a historic occasion, because [00:01:30] apart from the day we had our preliminary injunction in March of 1983, in front of Judge Van Sickle. I don’t think we were ever all together again, that was it. We had the lawyers there, Burt Neuborne and Allan Kanner came in. My dad was there. There’s Allan, I saw his face for a second, and Burt Neuborne was there. [00:02:00] And then we had, we had all, all 9 of the clients there, all sitting in a row and the judge walked in the courtroom, and we made our opening argument. And I think that might have been the most significant hour of the case. And the courtroom was absolutely full with, with farmers from all over the state, and everybody started off that day, high anxiety. It was quite, [00:02:30] quite, we were all quite nervous, but by the end of the hearing, I think we all felt we had done, done good.
Don McCabe: Yeah,
Sarah Vogel: So, that was 38 years ago. That was in 1983. Is that 38 years? Anyway, and then even when we had the trial, people have read the, the book realized that [00:03:00] I didn’t have notice that there was going to be a trial. So only Don and Diane couldn’t get to the trial because they were, you guys were out making hay and, and then Dwight dropped everything and drove in. And also the Folmers drove in and the Hatfields drove in, but the Crows Hearts could not be there. Lester could not make it tonight [00:03:30] because number one, there’s the snow storm and number two it’s Veterans Day and he’s up at Fort Berthold, and so they’re having ceremonies and stuff up there.
Speaker 6: Sure, sure.
Sarah Vogel: But so it’s, it’s historic that we’re getting together.
Leigh Stein: Yeah.
Sarah Vogel: In this case had such a big impact on so many people and ultimately grew to be not nine but 8,400 and then up to 240,000 farmers. [00:04:00] So,
Leigh Stein: oh man. Wow.
Sarah Vogel: And I, and I picked the, the, the North Dakota nine to illustrate what was happening to all of the farmers.
Leigh Stein: Yeah. And let’s go let’s, we’re going to tell that whole story tonight, Sarah. So let’s go back all the way to the beginning. I know some of the people here might have read the book already. Some people have not read the book. So we’re going to tell the story of this case from the very beginning with the people who lived it and Sarah, you had a fancy east coast job, [00:04:30] you moved east for law school, you were working Washington DC. And then you came home to North Dakota and started working with farmers and some of the first farm clients that came to you were Don and Diane McCabe.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah.
Leigh Stein: And they’re here with us tonight. So I’m going to hand it over to Don and Diane MC McCabe. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your story and borrowing from Farmer’s Home and what went wrong?
Diane McCabe: Okay.
Don McCabe: You go ahead.
Diane McCabe: Well, we really didn’t, you know, we were plugging it along and I mean barely [00:05:00] and getting by, I mean, we weren’t getting by, but Donny had went down, he had went to FHA to find out, you know that well what’s, what would they decide we should do. I mean, did they, are they, would, they want us to take it back and would they write the debt off? What was ever up? And the County Supervisor sat right there and he looked right at Don, he says, no. He said, what we’ll do, he said, if you don’t pay it, your kids will pay it. And your kids’ kids. So Don came home just in an uproar. He [00:05:30] said, he said, I told him b.s. He said, I may, I’ll pay for my mistake. You’re not taking my kids with it.
So that’s when that’s when we decided we had to do something. I mean, we just, we had to find some that could do something about this because there’s no way we could leave those, you know, this happened. And so then a few days later, Donny went down there and they had this real cushy deal that they’re willing to make him. And so he come home and he told me what it was. And I said, well, let’s go back. Let’s go back and, [00:06:00] and see what they said, cause I wanted to hear it. Well, so we went back, Don called him and said, can Diane come and listen to this. And you know, they kind of hit and hollered at Don. We went and we had bought, we had bought a little tape recorder at that time and I had it in my purse to take along and listen. And we walked in the office and we sat down and we were starting to talk about it.
And right away the County Supervisor said, nope, nope, nope. Don had that mistaken. Nope that, nope that was mistaken. That was never said. And Don says it was too. Why would I [00:06:30] make something like that up? But anyhow at the meeting was probably a half hour and he, with all this, no, nope, we come home. Went to play the tape recorder, complete nothing. Just, they had zapped the, for some reason they zapped the tape recorder. They had put a lock on the tape recorder.
Don McCabe: A buzz.
Diane McCabe: So we didn’t get that taped at all. So then we just, I, I don’t know, somehow rather we got a talk to Sarah and some, she says something [00:07:00] about, well, you know, a lot of farmers have, are having trouble. She says, maybe what we need to do is get farmers together and start something that all of you can work, you know, work with.
So that’s, and so that’s when I decided, well, I’ll put an ad in our county newspaper, you know that anybody he’s having trouble with FHA to call this number and this one, this Jim Brokaw. It, it says, you know, introduced us to Sarah. Okay. He was a Congressman, or he was a Legislator in North Dakota at the [00:07:30] time. And he knew a good friend of his, he knew a real good friend of ours from Adrian. So he called this good friend and he says, what kind of people are they? He said, do they, are you say, are they making this up or do they deserve this? And that guy said, if there’s anybody in the world that deserves to make a living on the farm, it’s those two. So then he would come with us. He joined right away with us, and from then on it was we moved forward.
Leigh Stein: Sarah, can you tell [00:08:00] us a little bit about the background of what this was going on? Because that seemed really important that Don and Diane thought they were alone, but this was actually happening to a lot of farmers. So what was happening in the eighties to farmers who borrowed from Farmers Home Administration?
Sarah Vogel: Well, there were high delinquencies, but the Farmers Home Administration was managing those high delinquencies. But when Ronald Reagan was elected, he appointed David Stockman as the Director of OMB and David Stockman imposed [00:08:30] a 23% delinquency reduction goal on, on the Farmers Home Administration. And they had to get, get this 23% fewer delinquencies by the following March. And the only way to do that, it seemed, was to force farmers, either into liquidating everything and paying off the debt or foreclosing and paying off the debt.
So there was just a crush of [00:09:00] delinquent acceleration notices and threats and, and what they call voluntary liquidations, which are basically emptying out the bank account, telling the farmer, they couldn’t get any money from their crops or their cattle or their dairy cows and starving them off the land. And then that was to pressure them to quit. And then the loan would no longer be deemed [00:09:30] a delinquent loan and they would make this quota. So it was, it was the McCabes were not alone. There were many, many, many farmers out there, but they, they weren’t necessarily aware of it. And when I remember when they came in to see me, I think Diane, you had never been to Bismarck before.
Diane McCabe: Well, I had been, but not where you lived, you lived down there [00:10:00] along the river and I’d never been to that part of Bismarck. So yeah, I’ve been to Bismarck, but not very often.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah. So we talked quite a while and they told me what was happening to them. And I, I basically emphasized that, they were not alone. And they, they did have options. They had the right to appeal. They had the right to a hearing. They were supposed to be offered a deferral.
Don McCabe: And they didn’t do nothing about.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah. [00:10:30] So, and then, and then they, they were, the McCabes, were absolutely trusting of the Farmers Home. I think you guys did whatever they said. And they, you got a lot of bad advice, from them.
Diane McCabe: Yeah, apparently. Yeah.
Sarah Vogel: And, and so the conversation was basically [00:11:00] what I was telling the McCabes, as I recall my notes say, basically telling them that they had options. They had the right to apply for deferral. They did not have to just up and quit their farm because somebody from Farmers Home told them that and they didn’t want, want to quit. They had kids, they wanted to stay farming, they’re dedicated farmers. So they made quite the impression on me and [00:11:30] we worked together then for quite a while.
Don McCabe: Oh yes we were.
Diane McCabe: Yeah.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah.
Diane McCabe: You were,
Don McCabe: yeah. You made quite a impression on us.
Diane McCabe: But when you said, when you asked, you said that living expenses were top priority, we were shocked. I’m not, we were literally shocked about that.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah.
Diane McCabe: Because we were told instead of them letting more of our, you know, we wanted to have them release more of our milk check and they said, no, but they said, if things [00:12:00] are tight, we just go apply for food stamps. And Don got so mad. He said, we produce the damn food for this country, why should we have to go and stand in line and get some somebody else?
Sarah Vogel: Yeah.
Diane McCabe: So that that’s what’s really got him up in the air.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah. It was, yeah. That was the top priority—was in the regulation.
Diane McCabe: Yep.
Sarah Vogel: The top priority for the income was supposed to be family living and farm operating expenses, which would be for [00:12:30] things for electricity feed.
Don McCabe: Yeah.
Sarah Vogel: Food for the family.
Don McCabe: They didn’t look out that way.
Diane McCabe: Yeah.
Sarah Vogel: No, they, the goal was to starve the farmers out.
Don McCabe: And they did good job of it.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah.
Leigh Stein: So Diane mentioned that the three of you and more farmers started organizing together and part of the impetus for the, that was this case in the summer of 1982 in Georgia, that really fired Sarah up. You want to tell about [00:13:00] this? The, the importance of the Curry case?
Sarah Vogel: Oh, you’re talking to me.
Leigh Stein: Yeah.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah, sure.
The Curry case was brought by an attorney in, in Georgia named Martha Miller. And she, she brought a class action and it asked that the judge halt all foreclosures until the Farmers Home Administration offered farmers, the right to apply for a deferral.
[00:13:30] There was laid out in a, in a 1978 law, 7 USC 1981(a). And they had a wonderful judge and he agreed with the farmers and said they were, they needed to be offered a deferral before foreclosure could occur. So he halted foreclosures in Georgia. And he ordered Farmers Home to issue [00:14:00] regulations, allowing farmers to apply for deferral. And by the way, there was another law that USDA was implementing almost word for word identical, that covered home loans. And they were following that law. So why would they follow the law for home loans and not follow it for farmers? So,
Leigh Stein: Yeah,
Sarah Vogel: the judge… [Judge Alaimo]. So the judge [00:14:30] ordered them to issue regulations. So we were pretty happy. That was in May of ’82. So I wrote to the Farmers Home in North Dakota asking if they were going to follow this. And he said, no.
Don McCabe: Yep.
Sarah Vogel: That applies only to Georgia. So that’s kind of when we Were beginning to realize we had to bring a North Dakota case.
Leigh Stein: And, and one of your ideas for fundraising in North Dakota case was to have a hoe down.
Diane McCabe: [00:15:00] Yeah.
Leigh Stein: And I remember Diane, wasn’t there a band from your, from your town.
Diane McCabe: Yep. Yeah.
Leigh Stein: What was that band called?
Diane McCabe: Yep. The Long Branch Boys. That’s what it’s yeah, they were there and they played and we had, we had made food, you know, and sold food, sold pop and that kind of stuff. So, yeah. And then people donated,
Don McCabe: We had quite a crowd,
Diane McCabe: We never charged a price. We just asked for donations from people and we did pretty good,
[00:15:30] but I said, I, I always felt bad because I said, I knew Sarah was breaking her back, and we weren’t able to get money to her that fast. And I mean, we had one up at Rolette. We went up there and had one of them there. We had another one, some otherwhere, some play, couple, two or three of them around the state. And we just couldn’t get enough money in to help us out, you know, couldn’t get enough in that fast. So, and I said, I felt sorry for her. Cause I said, I know she was in a hurt bag. I really know that. [00:16:00] So I said, I’m surprised she even had paper to print with at the time. It amazes me that she did.
Leigh Stein: So I remember when we were working on the book together, for those that don’t know, Sarah has and dozens and dozens of boxes of materials she saved from the eighties. And we would find these little letters from Diane McCabe on green paper in Diane’s handwriting saying like, here’s a check for a hundred dollars. I know it’s not much, we’ll send more when we can. And it’s so sweet. And Sarah saved those little notes.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah. Yeah.
Diane McCabe: I know. [00:16:30] I knew it just, it just really bothered me because knew, I mean, if I’d been her, I said, you know something, when you guys get enough money, then come get in touch with me. Well, we’d all been gone by that time. So nobody would’ve ever been in touch with her, but no, it was, it was, but you know, this happened, this happened, we had this.
Now some, you said somebody had changed administrators in their county, right? And it made a difference? That was us. [00:17:00] The administrator that we had when we first started nicest guy, very nice guy. And I mean, he, Donny been there and tell him what we needed and we got it. And in fact, in the fall, then Don went in, that was about 1981. We had like 12,000 bales out that had to be picked up, square bales.
So, you know, and I said, I can’t throw those bales. And he said, no, he said, I’m going to run down. And he said, I’ve seen a bale ride. And he said, maybe we can rent one. So [00:17:30] we went, he went down the FHA and he went in and he asked this guy, he says, you know, he said, I’m here to find out, is it possible for us to rent a bale wagon to get bales off the land, and the guy and the guy said, why would you want, he said, this isn’t something you use every year. And Don said, yeah, but he said, just go buy it. He says, you’re going to need it so go buy it. So we did that. And that bale wagon is still, was still working up to about five years ago with my, my brother’s place. So it’s still,
Sarah Vogel: It’s still in the world.
Leigh Stein: [00:18:00] Wow. Wow. Wow.
Diane McCabe: Yeah.
Leigh Stein: Well, well thank you Don. And Diane, I’m going to, I’m going to, I’m going to pivot here to the next farmer. So stay on the, stay on the line. We’ll come back to you here. All right. Thank you.
So Sarah, because of this case in Georgia, and because the North Dakota Director of Farmers Home said, this doesn’t count in our state. You started working to bring a North Dakota class action and you needed to find more plaintiffs. And so you made this questionnaire that you were going to have farmers fill out. So looking for the perfect lead [00:18:30] plaintiffs, and you brought that questionnaire to a picnic where you met Dwight Coleman. So Dwight is joining us this evening.
Dwight is here. And Dwight, do you want to say hello and tell us a little bit about your story, about borrowing from Farmers Home.
Dwight Coleman: Oh, hi everybody. First. I want to thank Sarah for what she’s done. I don’t think we’d have been, we’d have been here if it wasn’t for her telling the story. Or so.
My first, my first experience with [00:19:00] FHA was a beginning farmer loan. The bank turned me down because the interest rate was 21%. So they said you better go to FHA, buy land, and some cattle. So I went over to FHA and filled out the paperwork and they give me the money. It was supposed to be a 30 year deal, but it only lasted about three years. First year I bought, [00:19:30] I bought cattle, I bought some heifers and I calved them out. And then in the spring of the year, after my calves were all born, I had them in, I had them in the barn and the barn caught fire and burnt the whole bunch.
So I couldn’t make the payments that year. And then the second year we got a big snowstorm on the 23rd of September. So [00:20:00] we never harvested any crop at all. So, so that fall, I went into FHA and told him that there’s no way I can make these payments. Well, he said, we want you to go home and get, get your machinery lined up. And, and we’re going to foreclose on you. And well I said, well, isn’t there, isn’t there something else you can do? No. He said, there’s not much else. You can appeal it if you want to, but [00:20:30] you’re kind of wasting your time because the guy that voted to foreclose on you is in charge of, of the appeal. All I said, well, that’s kind of a putting a hot fox in the hen house. Well, he said, we can’t, there’s nothing else we could do for you.
So I kind of left the, I kind of left the FHA office in a, you know, kind of a heated demeanor. [00:21:00] So I got home and I called Byron Dorgan’s office. And I said, the secretary answered the phone. And she said, well, he is not in the, he’s not in the office now, but he said, I’ll give you a phone number of a lawyer, that’s starting up, getting together with farmers to see what they can do. And low and behold is Sarah Vogels phone number. That’s the first time I [00:21:30] was in touch with Sarah. And she said, well, you come to the, you come to Wolford North Dakota, we’re having a big meeting. So that’s where I started with Sarah.
Leigh Stein: That’s great. Sarah, do you want to talk a little bit about this, this, this flaw in the appeals process?
Sarah Vogel: Oh, it was more than a flaw. It was, it was [00:22:00] the, the way it was set up is it was a very hierarchical organization, State Director on top, District Director, County Supervisor, and the County Supervisors would be the ones dealing with the farmers, District Directors over the County Supervisors, and then the State Director over the District Directors. And like, if there was a real estate foreclosure, the State Director said I want to foreclose and he would sign the document. And then the Hearing Officer [00:22:30] would be a District Director who worked for the State Director, but if it was, we’re going to take away your cattle or your crops, your tractors, the shadow security, it would often times be the very person who had decided to shut the farmer down would also be the Hearing Officer. So that guy who told Dwight it would be useless to appeal. It was telling [00:23:00] the truth, because it really was.
They never, they never, to my knowledge, reversed a decision once made, even if it was a hundred percent wrong and you could prove it. So, so we were trying to implement the deferral, but in the process I and the farmers are being educated about how awful the appeal process was. How it deprived [00:23:30] the farmers of a fair hearing officer, how decisions were made that they could not overturn, the bias and the, just the way, the way the whole thing worked. It was a complete, complete opposite of the way it ought to be by a federal government was about people were supposed to be following the Constitution. So that soon became part of the process is [00:24:00] to, to, we couldn’t just attack the deferral.
We couldn’t just attack the deferral, the failure to implement the deferral. We also had to attack the failure to give the farmers a fair hearing, fair notice, and a fair hearing.
Leigh Stein: And there was one detail, when you met Dwight at the picnic, there was one detail he told you about when his loans would be due that just really made you mad.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah. Yeah. He got the notice and it said that he had to pay [00:24:30] all of his loans in full. These are the chattel loans, all the loans in full in 15 days. And it was sent on December 14th… No, December 10th. So 15 days was like Christmas Eve. I just could not believe that anyone would do that to anyone. And I thought that’s going to make a pretty good story [00:25:00] someday to a judge. So I thought that was fortuitous. And then also the fact that Dwight had just been there and he’d also in the month of November, December had paid $50,000 in like eight different payments to Farmer’s Home. He clearly was trying to stay on the land trying to pay, but the machine was pushing people out that 23% foreclosure quota [00:25:30] or collection had to be made. So they were moving on. It was a bulldozer and it was bulldozing farmers up right and left all across North Dakota and actually the country.
Leigh Stein: So you were taking on all these farm cases and you were like on a runaway train, you couldn’t get off. You were just on the train. Your father was a very famous attorney in North Dakota and he was very worried about [00:26:00] you and for a time there, you didn’t even have your… You weren’t registered with the North Dakota Bar Association.
Sarah Vogel: Yep. Yep.
Leigh Stein: And so he was worried about you and he decided to pay your way to go to a class action seminar in Washington DC.
Sarah Vogel: Yes, he did. And it was a very good thing that he did because I didn’t know… Well, I had never done a trial. I never filed a lawsuit, but [00:26:30] I knew that it needed to be a class action. And so when I went to this seminar, it was sponsored by the American Association for Justice, the American Trial Lawyers Association at the time. And I learned actually during those few days how right my father was to be terrified of me going into court without knowing much. So after the end of the seminar, I’m sitting in the lobby [00:27:00] and then in comes, Allan Kanner, comes over to visit and Leigh, why don’t you introduce Allan.
Leigh Stein: Yeah, we have two incredible lawyers joining us this evening in addition to Sarah. Allan Kanner and Burt Neuborne. And Allan is the first lawyer who joined on as Sarah’s co-counsel. Allan, welcome. I was wondering if you could tell us what drew you to this case and also maybe for those who don’t know, tell us a little bit about what makes class action [00:27:30] so difficult to bring and to win.
Allan Kanner: Thank you. Well, part of the case, part of the reason I liked the case was Sarah. Sarah’s very charismatic. She speaks from the heart. I had some success in class actions up until that point, at least I guess enough to be on a program, telling people about class actions. And [00:28:00] I thought, man, this is like, this is all heart, not a lot of academic discipline but all heart and I thought that was a good thing. And my dad was a farmer and an immigrant and I just could not believe what she was… First, I was shocked by what she was telling me about what the government was doing to people. I mean, you have hard working American farmers [00:28:30] out there doing their best possible job, some bureaucrat—Stockman—and the rest of the administration side. We’re just going to axe 30% of these people for no good reason other than it looks good on paper, which is not why we have government in America.
And I thought immediately not to jump ahead or get into the weeds. There was this very famous case called [00:29:00] Goldberg vs Kelly to people who receive welfare benefits can have those benefits denied. When I was at Harvard Law, I was a research assistant to a very great professor, Larry Tribe, who does a lot of Con law. And it immediately occurred to me that why should hardworking farmers, get less due process than welfare recipients as a practical matter. And [00:29:30] the story Sarah told and what my own investigation showed was people were working like dogs to try to make these payments and jump through all the hoops, these bureaucrats who had no checks or balances on them, we’re making people jump through. But mostly it was Sarah’s personality. I mean, she’s very warm. She’s very open, very honest, no BS about her. And she wanted to [00:30:00] get something done and it was clear to me she had done her homework about what it took to get something done. And so for all those reasons, I was thrilled to jump in and join the chaos.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah.
Leigh Stein: And Sarah, I think in the book we talk about Goldberg vs. Kelly as like the key to unlocking the treasure chest of the case and you have a special connection to Goldberg vs. Kelly too. Do you want to talk about that?
Sarah Vogel: Yeah. It was [00:30:30] my third year in law school, New York city, spring of 1970, and the Supreme Court had just announced Goldberg vs. Kelly. And so the little ACLU chapter at NYU Law was being asked by lawyers to go up to the… Basically I was sent to the Bronx and I actually… New York city was pretty gritty then. Manhattan [00:31:00] was pretty gritty, but the Bronx was like it had been bombed. It was amazing. And so it was to go up there and meet with somebody who had been taken off the home assistance and food assistance and told… They took them off those programs and then they said, and you can have a hearing in 60 days. Well, 60 days or [00:31:30] 30 days, the person was going to be out of a home, children are going to be-
Allan Kanner: Hungry.
Sarah Vogel: Hungry, yes. So it was absolutely awful and when I was walking down the street toward the courthouse to turn in the papers on of this woman I’d met with. There was a woman sitting on a stoop, which is steps. We always called them steps. New [00:32:00] York, it was a “stoop.”
Leigh Stein: I think it’s Dutch. I think that’s where it comes from.
Sarah Vogel: And she was holding a little baby and she was crying and all her stuff was out on the sidewalk. And so that was the Goldberg vs. Kelly case. Is that before you can do that to somebody, you have to give them notice, you have to have a hearing and it has to be done in advance before you take away the very means of survival. So Allan and I-
Allan Kanner: The fair hearing, not like [00:32:30] Dwight or the McCabes got, which was not a fair hearing.
Sarah Vogel: Right, right. It had to be fair. So this was like, Allan and I were sitting there and he’s talking about, he’s been through North Dakota, he loves North Dakota. He loves farmers. He was a chicken farmer and then Goldberg vs. Kelly and like, blah, blah, blah, blah. And all of a sudden I’ve got this co-counsel, who’s a class action expert. Hallelujah. It was a great [00:33:00] moment. I’ll never forget it in the hallway or the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel.
Allan Kanner: Yeah. That was pretty nice.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah. And then he said, I’ll help you [crosstalk 00:33:13] I was just like-
Allan Kanner: [crosstalk 00:33:16] serious but on the class action though, right?
Sarah Vogel: Oh, was I in a serious spot?
Allan Kanner: No, no. We ended up kicking serious butt.
Sarah Vogel: Oh yeah, yeah.
Allan Kanner: Kick butt on this thing. I mean-
Sarah Vogel: Oh, we did. We did. [00:33:30] They were helpless in front of us.
Leigh Stein: And meanwhile, at the same time, Sarah, you were sending these letters to the ACLU and asking them for help.
Sarah Vogel: Yep. And they were able to help and they were… I was corresponding with the regional office and they would say, yes, we’ll help you review briefs and this and that. And then on the day I moved to… Lost my house, [00:34:00] et cetera, et cetera, moved to Grand Forks living in my parents’ basement. I was in the office on my first day there and I got a call from Burt Neuborne who is also-
Leigh Stein: And Burt is here tonight. Welcome Burt.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah.
Leigh Stein: Do you want to tell us a little bit about what drew you to Sarah’s case and how the stars aligned with your own priorities at the ACLU at the time?
Burt Neuborne: Well, I had just… Well, it’s wonderful to be here. It’s wonderful to see you Sarah, over the years, you’ve [00:34:30] just been such an inspiring force. And so It’s great to be here. I had just become national legal director at the ACLU. I had worked on the ACLU staff for many years. I was teaching at NYU and I took a leave when Ronald Reagan got elected president, I took a leave. I took a leave from teaching to go back full time at the ACLU to try to defend as much of the [00:35:00] gains that we had made up until that time against what I knew was going to be a strong counter reaction. And I loved the ACLU, I spent most of my life working inside the organization, but I was troubled by one important, I thought flaw in the ACLUs work.
It defended constitutional rights, very effectively, free speech, [00:35:30] illegal search and seizure, religious freedom. I mean, and those are hugely important but their fundamentally middle class rights, their rights that middle class people enjoy. But that poor woman that Sarah saw crying on the stoop in the Bronx, free speech was meaningless to that woman. And all of the religious guarantee or all of the constitutional guarantees were meaningless because unless you have [00:36:00] some economic stability in your life, some capacity to know that you’re not going to be out on the street the next day, and you’ll have food for your family, then all these other rights are things that other people enjoy but you don’t. And I was sort of on a personal crusade to get the ACLU involved more with economic justice issues than just what I consider to be hugely important, but essentially [00:36:30] abstract, political rights.
And so it was like it fell from heaven. When I saw Sarah’s letters and I talked to the regional folks, I said, this is the case I want, this is the pivot that I can use to shift, not just the way farmers were being treated, which was appalling. But actually to make it clear to the ACLU folks, that there [00:37:00] was a role that we could play in economic justice that was consistent with being an organization that protected the constitution. And so I jumped in with both feet as soon as I saw it. And I was also thrilled that the opportunity to use Goldberg vs. Kelly, I mean, as Allan points out and Sarah points out the case was a revolutionary case. I mean, the case… Well, up until Goldberg vs. Kelly, the government treated poor people [00:37:30] as though they were children that were being given presents.
And the government was nice to the children. It gave them nice presents, but if the children misbehaved, the government took the presents back and that was that. They weren’t treated with dignity. They weren’t treated as individuals. They were treated as children and Goldberg vs. Kelly viewed poor people as dignitary beings. As beings that have the same [00:38:00] dignity that all of us have. And they said, you just can’t treat poor people that way. The whole purpose of the due process clause is to allow individuals to stand on an equal plane with government when government tries to do something to them. And so I thought the idea of using Goldberg vs. Kelly as the fulcrum for farmers and I had hoped to go beyond. [00:38:30] Once the farmers, I was thinking of agricultural workers to try to use the due process clause that way was terrific. And so blessed the day that Sarah got in touch with me.
Sarah Vogel: Well, I think you got in touch with me, Burt, because I remember-
Burt Neuborne: I know, well, no, no, you got in touch with the ACLU and that paper [inaudible 00:38:56] made its way to my desk. And as soon as I saw it, I jumped [00:39:00] on the phone.
Sarah Vogel: When Burt called, it was like, he said, I want to work with you on the case and I could hardly believe it. I said, you mean work with me on the case? Yes, yes. I want to be on the case. I want to be a lawyer in the case, it was like, oh my God, it was a dream come true because the ACLU has got muscle. That was serious muscle and Allan-
Allan Kanner: No, we never would’ve gotten a national class action [00:39:30] without Burt. We would’ve gotten North Dakota’s class action.
Sarah Vogel: Exactly.
Burt Neuborne: Yeah. That’s a great story, the way Sarah…. This is actually Sarah’s strategy and I adopted it very quickly. I called it the nibble strategy, which she did is first, she nibbled at the judge on behalf of some very, very sympathetic individual plaintiffs. And then she said, wouldn’t it be a good idea if all the farmers in North Dakota were treated that way and when the [00:40:00] judge took the hook and said, yeah, that sounds like a nice idea. She then said, well, what about everybody else in the country shouldn’t they all be treated that way? And so did it in three steps [inaudible 00:40:11] steps. And by the time it was over, we had a national class action, which was a very rare creature and a very potent weapon.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah.
Leigh Stein: I remember Allan, you saying to me that you did research and there had never been a national class out of North Dakota before.
Allan Kanner: [00:40:30] Correct.
Leigh Stein: So this must be the first then.
Allan Kanner: Yes, it was. But I don’t think Burt, Sarah or I had any fear about that because it’s the law that governs not the origin of the suit. It’s just that for all the political activism that North Dakota has enjoyed over the decades, back to Sarah’s grandfather, [00:41:00] Frank, but it was amazing. And we had a great judge, he’s passed away. He really did a lot of good things for the people, he like-
Burt Neuborne: And absolutely marvelous judge. He was a marvelous judge. This guy had an intuitive sense of justice. He didn’t care, he didn’t want me, or he didn’t want Allan, he didn’t want [00:41:30] Sarah to talk to him about high theory and all sorts of stuff. He wanted to talk about what the just thing to do was. And I thought to myself, as I was standing there in this North Dakota courtroom, if this guy was given an admissions test, he wouldn’t pass into a lot of elite institutions. And yet he was one of the best judges I was ever before because he had a heart that understood justice and a brain that made it work. And it was [00:42:00] just great. It was just wonderful. It was a privilege to be before him.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah.
Allan Kanner: Me too. I mean, he had been the US attorney before he became a federal district judge. And all these guys from Washington showed up against us, looking to take Sarah’s scalp or whatever. And they were all like, oh judge, you’re one of us really. I mean, we’re like the federales and whatnot. He could have cared [00:42:30] less. He just wanted to do what was right.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah.
Allan Kanner: Thank God for judges like that.
Dwight Coleman: This case was something like the story of David and Goliath. Goliath had all the swords and all the… Everything, and all the money and all the lawyers and everything else. But Sarah, she was on the side of right.
Allan Kanner: No, that’s true.
Sarah Vogel: Can I tell everybody how [00:43:00] I decided to go to judge Van Sickle? I had just left Bismarck and moved to Grand Forks, 280 miles. And I had the case pretty well ready to file and I asked my father, where should I file it? How about across the street? Northeast District in North Dakota. And he said, no. And I said, well, what about Fargo? And he said, no, can’t be in Fargo. Can’t be before Judge Benson. [00:43:30] And he said, it has to be in Bismarck, has to be with Judge Van Sickle. And I said, but dad that’s 280 miles. He said, it has to be before Judge Van Sickle. He is your judge. You do not want Judge Benson and my dad used to say, he didn’t put in a lot of time on the case, but he said that 15 minutes where he told me that we had [00:44:00] to go to Judge Van Sickle was the best. That set the course for the whole case.
Leigh Stein: Yeah.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah.
Leigh Stein: And I want to get to the dramatic trial, but first, as you were assembling your North Dakota Nine, and Judge Van Sickle coined that term, at the last minute you had seven lead plaintiffs and you were looking for Native American lead plaintiffs. Lester Crows Heart couldn’t be with us tonight, but do you want to talk a little bit about why you were certain that you needed to have Native American plaintiffs on the case too?
Sarah Vogel: Yes. I [00:44:30] had heard that the delinquency rate within the Native American ranch or community was even higher than it was amongst the white farmers. And I knew that they had been treated even worse and there’s a long legacy of federal mistreatment of Native Americans. So I wanted to have a Native American client. Also in one of my jobs [00:45:00] on the east coast, I’d been head of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act enforcement. And I know how Farmers Home discriminated against blacks and minorities and women. And so it was important to me. So I remember Don and Diane were instrumental because, well, first of all, we sort of did the farmer grapevine, but I didn’t hear back. And then Don and Diane, [00:45:30] I called Don and Diane and they said, I should talk to a guy by the name of Monte Haugen.
And I talked to Monte Haugen and Monte Haugen was going up to Fort Berthold where there’s been ranching for several thousand years. And the next day I got a call from Lester Crows Heart who had a long, long legacy of [00:46:00] ranching and farming. And so quite a bit of the book goes to the history of Native American farming and ranching. So Lester and Sharon were the eighth and the ninth of the lead plaintiffs. And I should also explain how the North Dakota Nine came about. It’s on the title of the book. It was many years after the case was over. I was invited [00:46:30] to lunch by Judge Van Sickle and he was writing an article and he wanted me to check and see where the lead plaintiffs were and write an appendix to his article. And he called them the North Dakota Nine.
And I said, why the North Dakota Nine? Who are the North Dakota Nine? And he had bright blue eyes that twinkled and he said, well, I’ve been calling them the North Dakota Nine because they reminded me of the Chicago [00:47:00] Seven because the Chicago Seven were sticking up for the constitution. And they had their crazy hair and their crazy clothes and their crazy tactics, but the North Dakota Nine, Dwight, the McCabes and the rest of them in their quiet North Dakota farmer way, were just as radical and advocates for the constitution. So that’s where that came from and I just love it. They were the North Dakota Nine.
Leigh Stein: [00:47:30] And all nine lead plaintiffs and Allan and Burt were all at the preliminary injunction hearing, which I think was in April 1983. So that’s the last time everyone was in the same room together. Does anyone have any memories of that hearing that they want to share?
Allan Kanner: It was wild. It [00:48:00] was just great. I mean, It was wonderful having all the clients there, they were fully engaged. There’s something about the legal system, here’s a lawyer representing you so your personality’s taken out of the case, but the courtroom was packed. Wasn’t it Sarah?
Sarah Vogel: It was.
Allan Kanner: And people knew what was riding on it. It was really a thing of beauty for a lawyer [00:48:30] to be a part of that. We were the advocates, but in a lot of ways, by their presence, our clients were the advocates.
Burt Neuborne: Yeah. I had a strong sense when I was in the room. And I didn’t do much at this hearing because I actually listened to the judge and watched him interacting almost emotionally with the plaintiffs. And there was a visceral connection between the judge [00:49:00] and the plaintiffs with Sarah being the principal link. And I said to myself, at this point, it’s over. All we have to do is not screw it up, but it’s over. Because once that emotional link gets made in a case where the injustice is so powerful and you have a judge like Van Sickle, who’s not afraid to do something. All a good lawyer should do at that point is get out of the way and make sure [00:49:30] that you don’t screw it up. And give the judge what the judge needs, to do it. And that’s of course what Sarah did at that point. She fed the judge, whatever the judge needed, but all of my careful analytical histrionics that I had worked on, I don’t need it, I don’t need it. It’s all going to work out.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah, I felt that day. Well, the night before I think I had gone around the room and I tried to talk [00:50:00] my dad, Allan, Burt, everybody else, into going in and making the argument, because I’d never done that before. And everybody all told me I could do it so. But I remember that day, it was so easy to talk to judge Van Sickle because he was looking out and I could feel the room behind me, the farmers behind me, and the lead plaintiffs were lined up and I-
Burt Neuborne: Sarah, [00:50:30] Sarah don’t, don’t give all the credit to judge Van Sickle. I mean, the fact that Van Sickle reacted the way he did is because you set a stage that he couldn’t ignore. I mean you, by putting together what was a genuine North Dakota mosaic of farmers. Hardworking people that Van Sickle knew and respected and making sure that you did all your homework in getting the stage [00:51:00] set is what made it work. I’ve had too much experience with lawyers who short circuit that, who think the game is all about them. So they don’t really put together the kind of fact based, human based case that you did. And then they find out that the judge isn’t interested because you haven’t engaged him. You did textbook work when putting that together [00:51:30] and you could see it in that first preliminary hearing. You could just watch it, it was like effervescence, I mean you could see the bubbles coming up and everything was working.
Allan Kanner: Burt’s exactly right. Rule 101 of the advocacy in courtroom is, concrete always beats abstraction. So you could walk into court and you can talk about fundamental rights and this and that. On the other [00:52:00] hand, you could present, as Sarah did, facts about people and their struggles. And Van Sickle got right away that the… North, Dakota’s not an easy place. It’s never been an easy place. He got right away that these are people who were the right people, people who were playing by the rules and trying to do the work that was necessary. And the government let them down [00:52:30] where government really ought to have supported them or helped them in some way.
And I think it was that recognition that what McCabes gone through, that what Crows Hearts had gone through, that what Dwight Coleman had gone through, was exactly what we want Americans to be doing. And yet the government still pulls out the rug. I think to a large extent he responded also to the personality of the plaintiffs [00:53:00] and the hard work and struggles of the plaintiff and said, “Why is government making this so hard for people to get by?” what do you think, Sarah?
Sarah Vogel: I think that’s right, and he grew up in the thirties, Judge Van Sickle, his father had been a farmer and he’d also been in the military and he was… He’d been in the legislature [00:53:30] so I think he had a profound sense of justice. And then we were also helped along because when the government lawyer came in, this was ridiculous, the government lawyer came in and he got in a big snit. He said, “I don’t want to be sued. I want to sue people, I want to be the one suing and I want them to dismiss their case [00:54:00] and then we’ll foreclose on one farmer, and we’ll get all these issues handled. One farmer in the Western district and one farmer before Judge Benson.” And it was like no, no, you don’t get to say, “we don’t get to sue you!” It was really the lamest approach. But he was whining that we had sued the federal government. He was quite upset by it. That’s my memory [00:54:30] of the argument of the government, which was a gift. It was just a gift.
Allan Kanner: I mean, I would defer to your memory and Burt’s, but I thought the guy who showed up to argue for the government was one of the worst lawyers I ever saw. Whatever doubt or concern I had that somebody might stick a shiv in you was gone when I listened to that guy.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah so-
Leigh Stein: [00:55:00] I’ll just chime in for a second and say, when Sarah came to me wanting to write a book, she said she wanted to write a John Grisham legal thriller. And so there were many moments where I said, we have to tone down how much you love the judge and how you’re sure you’re going to win the case because then it’s not a legal thriller, we’ll give too much away. So for those of you who’ve read the book, we tried to keep it dramatic and suspenseful, which way is the judge going to go in order to hide from the reader the outcome. But by all accounts, Judge Van Sickle was the perfect person for the case. So as of that hearing everything was going [00:55:30] well, everyone was feeling positive, the judge was responsive. You and your nemesis, the other attorney, Gary Annear had a meeting with the judge and you decided-
Allan Kanner: Annear.
Leigh Stein: Annear, Gary Annear, you decided that the rest of the case would be on paperwork and one more hearing. And then you got a fateful phone call.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah, that was a shocker because I’d been working on more briefs. The judge had told me, [00:56:00] basically he didn’t want any more briefs, but I didn’t listen. But I had more and more briefs and ready to drive to Bismarck for the final hearing. And I get a call from the judge’s clerk. And I thought, he’s calling me because he doesn’t have this big, last brief yet. And I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll have it to you tomorrow morning. [00:56:30] I’ll drop it off in the morning.” And he said, “No, I’m not calling about the brief. I’m asking which witnesses you’re going to bring to the trial tomorrow.”
And I didn’t know there was going to be a trial. And I go, “Oh, I’ll bring my clients. I’ll bring my lead plaintiffs.” And that was it. [00:57:00] And then I called Burt. I ran across the hall and asked my dad if he could come with me, because I’d never done a trial. This is what lawyers wake up with, with nightmares that you have… You wake up in the middle of the night you go, “Oh my God, I got a trial tomorrow and I’m not ready.” Well, that night I learned I had a trial the next day.
And [00:57:30] it was basically a double cross because that is indeed what the judge had said, that was in the record but… Actually I blamed myself for years, not knowing the difference between the hearing and the trial. I asked my dad if he could, he couldn’t he had a trial, I called Burt, well why don’t you guys?… but then I called Allan, and Allan said he could come. And he was going to rush to the airplane [00:58:00] and be on the plane and be there, be in Bismarck in the morning. I was like, “Great!” and then I got a call back from Allan. Take it away.
Allan Kanner: You know that last flight to Bismarck. They’ll often cancel it. It’s just that.
Sarah Vogel: So I had-
Allan Kanner: I had no doubt that Sarah could do this.
Sarah Vogel: I’d [00:58:30] never introduced a document. I’d never cross-examined a witness. So I had Allan on the phone and I said, “What should I do Allan?” And he told me that he had often had good luck bringing the other side’s witnesses as my own. Proving our case through the government officials and that’s, what I decided to do. [00:59:00] And that was very good advice. And Allan said they would hate that. And they did.
Leigh Stein: Burt do you remember any of the advice that You gave Sarah? Do you remember [crosstalk 00:59:17] –
Burt Neuborne: I know that she was frightened and she really was panicked about the idea of trying a case the next day. And I had some sympathy for that. I remembered as a young lawyer [00:59:30] worried about my first couple trials. But I gave her a pep talk, I gave her a very strong… Because I was convinced that first, Sarah constantly downplayed her abilities. I knew that she could do this. And I knew that she would be a natural in court because she would operate on a conversational level that was down to earth and understandable. And she wouldn’t [01:00:00] stray from keeping an eye on the prize, on actually what the justice requires in the case. And then I knew that Van Sickle would help her. I just knew it, I knew that good judges when they have an inexperienced trial lawyer before them, they don’t beat up on the inexperienced trial lawyer, they help. And that Van Sickle [01:00:30] was exactly the kind of judge before whom Sarah would flourish.
And Allan’s tactic about calling the defense witness first was just simply brilliant. I do the same thing myself. They’re not ready for it. They don’t expect it. They think what’s going to happen is they’re going to be led through their testimony by a friendly lawyer. And then they’re going to [01:01:00] be cross-examined, but it’ll be after they get their stuff in just the way they want to do it. And if you jump the gun and call them first and they don’t have their friendly lawyer to lead them through the testimony they panic. And I’ve seen it over and over again. And this was a classic example. So Allan gets the tactical credit and Sarah [01:01:30] gets the credit for actually pulling it off. She did it and they collapsed.
Leigh Stein: Dwight, what do you remember about Sarah preparing you?
Allan Kanner: There’s something about sincerity that counts in a courtroom okay? Jurors and judges can see if you’re sincere if you’re honest and straightforward. And that was one of Sarah’s great strengths, was that she [01:02:00] was straightforward, sincere, and really cared. And also the government’s position was just always so absurd. That this was okay what they were doing, not giving people hearings, taking away their farms, lying to them. I thought Sarah could pull it off by just being the master [01:02:30] of ceremonies. This is what’s going on. Dwight, tell us what happened to you. But let’s get back to Dwight. Sorry.
Dwight Coleman: She calls me about eight o’clock at night. And she said, “You’ve got no choice, you got to be here tomorrow morning to testify.” And I thought, what the world am I going to do? I got a beat up old car.
Dwight Coleman: I got to drive all the way to Bismarck to be on this. And right away in the morning, we don’t have time to do anything, but it’s go.
Leigh Stein: And did Sarah give you advice about what to do when you were on the witness stand?
Dwight Coleman: She said, you listen to what I’m saying and you always don’t skirt the truth. If Van Sickle askd you a question just tell him the truth and that’s about [01:03:30] what we did. We didn’t skirt the truth. We told them exactly what it was going on. Yep.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah. They were great. They were-
Leigh Stein: And one of my favorite moments we used… it’s a 600 page transcript of the trial that Sarah used in the book. But one of the best moments in that transcript is when Dwight tells the story about this county supervisor’s assistant who came to visit his farm. Could you tell that story?
Dwight Coleman: Well, every year that you’re [01:04:00] in FHA, you have someone come out and they want to count all the cows, all the bulls, all the calves, look at your machinery, everything like that. So I told Van Sickle, I said, they come out to count my cows and as they were going through the lane, this guy from FHA, he said, “Boy, that’s an awful big cow.” Well, I said, “It should be. It’s a damn bull.”
Leigh Stein: And then [01:04:30] I think Gary Annear said, “Are you saying to me that the county supervisor doesn’t know the difference between a cow and a bull?” And you said “he does, but his assistant doesn’t.”
Dwight Coleman: That’s right I took him out right there.
Allan Kanner: Honestly, for the record, I think Sarah really enjoyed kicking Gary Annear’s butt.
Sarah Vogel: Yes I did.
Allan Kanner: That’s my personal opinion.
Dwight Coleman: But you know [01:05:00] Van Sickle treated Sarah pretty well because he knew that Sarah was on the side of right. He knew that FHA was way out of balance and way out of… There was no justice according to the FHA lawyers.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah, there were some very emotional moments [01:05:30] during the trial and some very kind of funny ones too. And my brother Frank is on as well. And our father was revered in North Dakota. And the other judges liked him, the law clerks liked him, the lawyers liked him. And I was lucky. They usually have sort of a clerk of [01:06:00] court who sits there and keeps track of all the documents and another one who’s the stenographer. And they were brothers and they liked our dad very much. And so when I didn’t know how to introduce a document. You have to walk over, you get it marked for identification, you have to walk back, you have to show it to the opposing council, they have to take it back to where the clerk is and give it a number, [01:06:30] and then you can talk about it.
I had no clue. So the clerk of court is making me… and they don’t show up in the transcript because it’s all non-verbal. It’s like, come over here. And then they’d even hold up a paper like okay. And then he was like, “Go over there.” And then the guy was like, “Come here.” And then he would stamp it and then “Go there.” And I just wandered around [01:07:00] and those guys… And then I got the hang of it by day two. But we did get all the documents in but my dad got there the third day. So I was alone for two days. All day long, this trial, it was so tough. But this is a lawyer thing. So the last day they pulled somebody that I had not deposed.
I did [01:07:30] not know what he was doing, what he was saying. He brought up a report I never heard of before. And it seemed very wrong to me and I wanted to stop it. So I leapt to my feet and I said, “I object.” And Judge Van Sickle said, “On what basis?” And I said, “It’s not true.” And at this point, lawyers die because you just don’t do that. [01:08:00] And then Judge Van Sickle knew, I didn’t know what I was doing, but he didn’t want to get it in either. So he said, “Well, perhaps it is rule 1008 and perhaps it would be…” So he created the objection and then he upheld the objection. He said, “I uphold the objection.” I was like, “Oh good.” It was the kindest thing ever. But it was [01:08:30] amazing. But he did not believe the stories the clients told, he could not believe it.
Allan Kanner: [inaudible 01:08:42]
Sarah Vogel: Yeah, and the dialogue that he had with Dwight was just amazing. Because I think he started it by saying, “Aren’t you underwater?” And Dwight said, go ahead [01:09:00] Dwight.
Dwight Coleman: Oh, you go ahead.
Sarah Vogel: No, no you do it. It was you.
Dwight Coleman: Well, this is the first time I’ve ever been to a courtroom. So I was expecting the lawyer to do the talking. But Van Sickle, he was talking to me all the time and asking me questions instead of letting Sarah do it. So it’s kind of a neat deal there. Yeah he knew what was going on. That’s [01:09:30] for sure.
Leigh Stein: Yeah. I think he said to you Dwight, he led you in a direction to say, you still thought you had a chance at this. If you could just keep doing it, you could dig yourself out yourself. That’s what you wanted to do.
Dwight Coleman: Oh, sure. Yeah.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah, and another one of our clients who passed away was Russell Folmer and Russell Folmer had been falsely accused of conversion, or theft. He [01:10:00] was falsely accused of having sold cattle that were mortgaged to Farmers Home, absolutely false, just a reckless accusation. We had disproved it at the hearing level and they brought it up again at court and-
Allan Kanner: They attacked the character of all of the plaintiffs didn’t they?
Sarah Vogel: Yeah, they did, they did. They tried to show everybody was a shady character, a bad farmer, hopelessly in debt, could never dig out. [01:10:30] It went like that. But Judge Van Sickle was so appalled at the treatment of Russell Folmer. And then we had done a very big appeal. I don’t know, 50 page appeal disproving all the accusations against Russell Folmer. And the county supervisor had lied on the stand. And anyway, Russell was up there and he had the letter. That was the end [01:11:00] of the appeal. And the letter just said, we see no reason to change our mind. That was about it. It didn’t respond to any of the arguments. Anyway, Judge Van Sickle leaned over and asked Russell to give him the piece of paper and he looked at it and he said, three times, I think, is this all you got, is this all they gave you? Because by that point he [01:11:30] knew that Russell had been… And Anna Mae, by the way, Russell’s widow is still on the farm. She’s 91.
Leigh Stein: Wow.
Sarah Vogel: Yeah. Anyway, that was, that was a beautiful moment to…
Leigh Stein: Well, I’d love to bring Diane in for a minute. Diane, I remember you telling me, at the time that this was all going on, there was also a movie being made by Jessica Lange called Country. [01:12:00] And Jessica Lange used the affidavits of Sarah’s clients as inspiration. Diane, do you remember going to see that movie?
Diane McCabe: Yeah, we did. We were down there and it happened to be playing in the theater we were in about Nebraska. And we sat towards the back and I mean, literally, we were seeing this thing unfold in front of our eyes. I mean, this is what was going on. And it got to the end when they finally got that county supervisor to admit that, yeah, he was wrong. And as the movie ended, [01:12:30] people literally stood up and started applauding. They were so happy to find out that maybe these people were going to actually stand a chance.
But yeah, it’s like living our life over again. I mean, it was just… I mean, that poor kid that wanted, committed suicide, there was people that close. I mean, they were just close to that unless you didn’t… Because I know we had a lady call us and she said, “Can you come over and talk to my husband?” And Don said, “What’s going [01:13:00] on?” She said, “I don’t know.” But she said, “He’s been sitting out in his vehicle for hours.” She says, “And I’m afraid.” So Don said, “Yeah, I’ll come.”
So Donny took off and it was clear down by Minot, North Dakota. And he got there and he knocked on the guy’s window and the guy unlocked the door and Donny just started talking. And the guy said, he says, “I don’t stand a chance.” He says, “I’m going to die broke.” He says, “I might just as well die now.” And Don says, “No, no. There’s stuff going on all the time. [01:13:30] Things change. Things can get better. They can get worse, but they get better.” And he said, “Things change.” He said, “Nothing like this is worth your life.” He says, “You’re always going to be able to make a living. It’s not worth your life.” So then the guy looks okay. To him he finally straightened out, but he was in rough shape.
Leigh Stein: Wow. Yeah, and I know a lot of people are in crisis right now, too. It’s happening again today.
Diane McCabe: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Leigh Stein: I’m happy to use, we can [01:14:00] use the last 10 minutes if anyone has any questions. Beth may need to unmute you if you have questions, so if you can put your name in the chat, and Beth can find you and unmute you. But was there anything, Dwight, Allan, Burt or Diane? Is there anything that you were burning to say tonight that we didn’t get to that you want to be sure that you share about your experience with the case before we take questions?
Allan Kanner: I think Sarah really changed the world. You know, she made government understand that they couldn’t just do [01:14:30] whatever they wanted and they had to respect people. They had to respect their struggles and their efforts in life. And I’m really proud to have been a part of that.
Burt Neuborne: Yeah, when I look back, I was an ACLU lawyer for almost 50 years. And when I look back on the cases that I have litigated, this is the one that makes me smile. [01:15:00] And part of it was Sarah, but I have to say, part of it was the plaintiffs.
Diane McCabe: Yes.
Burt Neuborne: I often used to joke, when you’re a civil liberties lawyer, the kinds of people that get in trouble with the government because they say things that the government doesn’t want them to say, they’re often very difficult people. I mean, they’re people that are hard to like, and I always used to say, “I can’t think of any clients [01:15:30] that I have represented that I would want to have for dinner, except the North Dakotans.” I would love to get to know each of you better.
Dwight Coleman: You know, we used to have 40 million farmers and now we’re down to one million.
Burt Neuborne: I know.
Dwight Coleman: This pandemic is showing [01:16:00] people, especially government, that they better take care of this million farmers because that’s all they got left.
Burt Neuborne: Yeah. You know, this is part of a long… Dwight has a really important point. This is part of a long story of the erosion of the family farm, of individual farmers and putting all our hopes and dreams for agriculture in corporations, the large corporations. Because after all, [01:16:30] when you think about what the Farmers Home, when Farmers Home was foreclosing on all these farms, they weren’t giving them to other small farmers. That land was all being bought up by agribusiness, by these huge corporations that became larger and larger and larger. And I have to tell you, I don’t want to bet my future on whether some corporation is going to grow the land. I want to bet my future on whether Dwight is going to grow. [01:17:00] And Diane and Don. And so trying to hold back that corporate wave I think was one of the bravest things that Sarah did.
Diane McCabe: But you know, Sarah, we used to go around the country counseling farmers, helping them get their books and stuff ready. And we went out to Steele. There was a kid that called us and said, “Can you go out and talk to my brothers?” And we did. And we were sitting at the table [01:17:30] and it was two young farmers. And they were talking about what they needed and what stuff. And the mother says, “You know, I just don’t understand any of this. I don’t know how these boys can be in trouble like that. We farmed and farmed and we never had all this expense against us like this.” And she says, “Furthermore, what’s the big deal with farming. If I want something, I can just go in the store and buy it.” And I looked at her and I said, “And your boys farm for a living?” I just could not. “I’d just [01:18:00] go in the store and buy it.” I thought, “How dumb.” I wanted to jump across the table and choke her. I really did.
Sarah Vogel: I wanted to say something about, I’ve gotten a lot of credit here tonight, but when I got down and I got frightened by what I’d gotten into, there was someone who would call. Often, it would [01:18:30] be Dwight. And he would say, “Hey, Sarah, how are you?” And then, or Diane and Don or the Folmers. But they would call and then I would remember it’s about them. It’s about these farmers. And then I had enough to go on for another day or a week or… The clients held up the lawyers, I would say.
Leigh Stein: [01:19:00] Yeah. Well, we have a couple questions. The first one is from Dina. Dina would like to know, Dwight and Diane and Don, how are you doing today? Dwight, do you want to go first? How are you?
Dwight Coleman: 2007, I retired from farming. I sold my farm. None in the family wanted to farm, so I ended up selling it and I’m working construction right now. And I spend my winters down [01:19:30] south and my summers in North Dakota. I enjoy every minute.
Don McCabe: Okay, Diane, you’re next.
Diane McCabe: Okay. Yeah, we left the farm in-
Don McCabe: ’91.
Diane McCabe: ’88 because we actually were done farming before that, but we left in ’88. I went to college at Valley City and got my degree in education. And Donny went to work in Jamestown. After I graduated Valley City, we moved up here in Fargo and he started to work for… [01:20:00] And I taught. And I worked out of Clay County Courthouse, I said, for years. So I mean, loved it, was great.
Leigh Stein: Good, good. And Andrea, I think you’re unmuted now, if you would like to ask your question.
Andrea: Hi, thank you so much, all of you, for coming together and talking about this. And for you, Sarah, for writing this, and Leigh for helping bring this [01:20:30] book into the world. It’s so important. I’m curious. As you kind of started talking about their, how farming is now, what are things that we can do as people who are not farmers who support [crosstalk 01:20:50] farmers. And also, hopefully, I guess I’m asking two questions, how we support them in our daily lives, but also, what can [01:21:00] we do to be a part of larger action, as well?
Sarah Vogel: One thing I would like to recommend is go onto the websites of, for example, the Farm Aid or National Farmers Union. Or tonight, we have the representatives of the Farmers Legal Action Group. You know, there are a lot of legal battles going on today, and public policy battles, [01:21:30] so supporting and learning about what those organizations want. I mean, number one would be like antitrust enforcement.
Number two, helping beginning farmers. It’s a crisis if we don’t get more beginning farmers up. And then, it’s hollowed out. There’s a lot of people that, USDA defines farmer as somebody who sells more than $1,000 a year in some kind [01:22:00] of farm product. And so there are quite a few of those. And then there’s a big hollow where it’s the middle-size family farmers. And then it goes to the very big corporate farms of which Burt was speaking. We have to focus on the middle-size family farmers and make it possible for them to survive and provide us with the food and climate change and good water and good food and [01:22:30] all of that. And the survival, there’s so much interest in how do we revive rural areas? Well, it starts with the farm. And then the farm supports the main street and then the main street thrives.
Burt Neuborne: I would ask your Congressmen, each one of you, what she or he is doing toward resuscitating the family farm. I mean, that’s [01:23:00] the backbone of the country. I mean, all of our culture, the culture of the nation is based on the values of farmers and the idea that we’re now a nation without family farmers. As Sarah points out, we have lots of people who do it as a hobby, and they sell about a thousand or $2,000 worth of merchandise. And we have huge corporations, but there’s a hole where the family farm used to be. [01:23:30] And that whole can be filled with correct policies.
Dwight Coleman: North Dakota just got $1 billion from the US government on this, I don’t know what they call it, some program. I’d like to see part of that go to probably the top 10 or the top five Future Farmers of [01:24:00] America, or a 4-H leader, outstanding 4-H leader or something, and see if we can get some land bought and set up so these guys can be able to afford to farm because that’s going to be the biggest thing is we’re just running out of land that’s not owned by farmers. It’s going to be owned by corporations, so if we can get 10 or 15 [01:24:30] kids coming out of high school that want to farm and dedicate it, I think that’s where a lot of money should go to.
Leigh Stein: Okay. We have two last questions and then we’ll say goodnight. Barbara, please go ahead.
Barbara: Hi, I’m from Missouri, and I worked this farm crisis stuff for about 40 years. But let me just say, and I’m still working on it, I’ve been a longtime Farmers Union member and was state secretary for many years, [01:25:00] but I also worked for the Catholic bishop for 33 years, and I was the real life director all those years. And the bishop I started working for, he was just beside himself with what was happening to our family farmers in the 38 counties, the rural 38 counties of our diocese. So I just plunged in and worked, and I’m retired now, but I’m still working with our local, our state Farmers Union, [01:25:30] so this is in response to Andrea, but I also work with a relatively new group called Family Farm Action. And its locus is here and we just had last week three days of virtual lobbying, and we must have talked to about 25 staff people from various legislators’ offices.
So I just want to say this to you. There’s important legislation that’s afloat right now. And one of them is the [01:26:00] Farm System Reform Act. So here’s another thing, Andrea. Stay in touch with Senator Booker, a city guy, a vegan, but he’s tremendous. He’s just tremendous. And he is a key sponsor for that. So it’s called the Farm System Reform Act. It’s S.2332, and it has a House companion, which is 4421.
Also, we worked on the food and agribusiness merger moratorium [01:26:30] because that’s what’s happened to farmers. They’re just mergered out of business by these big corporations. They’re done in. And we also worked on the Meat Packing Special Investigator Act. And this is interesting because sometimes we have Republicans, even, who work on this stuff, interestingly enough, and Grassley, who’s really pretty terrible on a lot of things, but he’s okay on this. I mean, he gets it about this, and same with Senator [01:27:00] Grassley, terrible on most everything, but he gets it about some agriculture. He gets it about the checkoff and about this whole thing about meat packing. So there’s this legislation, it’s called the Meat Packing Special Investigator Act, and it was introduced by Grassley and Rounds and Tester. Montana, Tester. And it’s Senate bill 2036. So then the other thing is this [01:27:30] checkoff, there’s a checkoff program reform legislation.
So these are like four really important pieces that are pushing right now, and Farmers Union works on them, Family Farm Action. We met with USDA folks. I mean, everybody, we did it over three days of time. There are ways, Andrea, to get involved in this. I grew up on a family farm. My family was sucked under in the early 1980s by this farm crisis, [01:28:00] so my father never understood what happened. And I told Sarah this in an email, he never understood what happened to him. And it kind of became my mission to understand it and to never let go of it. You know, I wasn’t very close to my father in some ways, but this is my homage to him, I think. But also, it’s become my mission, as well.
Sarah Vogel: Hallelujah.
Diane McCabe: Yeah. Great, great. That’s good.
Andrea: Thank you, Barbara.
Diane McCabe: [01:28:30] You know, that’s another thing with farmers. We’re out there, we’ve got pride. And for us to say, “Hey, we’re going broke or we don’t have the money to do this,” it’s hard. I mean, it’s actually saying that, well, we didn’t do a good enough job, and you feel really ashamed of it, so you kind of keep it bottled up inside. But you know, once we actually started this, you’d be surprised how many people that we thought were doing so well weren’t doing so well.
Leigh Stein: [01:29:00] Yeah.
Leigh Stein: Brad, would you like to ask our final question this evening?
Brad: Sure, I’m Leigh’s father, and I want to say it’s been an absolute privilege tonight in hearing all of you and hearing about all of the wonderful, courageous, persistent efforts that all of you demonstrated through this entire process. I mean, it’s extremely admirable. You know, growing up in [01:29:30] the fifties, sixties and seventies and seeing all the different fights in America that were civil rights based, or whatever, your fight is extremely, extremely unique. And it’s an incredible win. And I think hats off and kudos to all of you for having the courage to fight the fight and produce the results that you did. Special kudos to you, Sarah, along with all your legal compatriots [01:30:00] and everybody else that supported you. And I really enjoyed the personal accounts from all of you, as well. You know, Don and Diane, Allan, Dwight, for all of you.
Sarah Vogel: Thank you.
Brad: The question that I have is, through all of this, you were up against insurmountable odds. Was there was a particular time where you felt like it was total futility and you didn’t have a chance of winning? And if that happened, [01:30:30] what gave you the special impetus to keep fighting on?
Diane McCabe: With us?
Sarah Vogel: Go ahead.
Diane McCabe: With us, it was Brokaw getting in touch with us after we put that ad in the paper, if anybody needed any assistance or was having trouble with FHA, to call us or to let us know. Well, then Brokaw called us and that’s how we got it started. And then we finally realized that we weren’t alone. There is others out there. [01:31:00] It’s hard. Yeah, you get kind of kicked in the teeth, but you can manage to get back up.
Allan Kanner: I think power is also, whether it’s Sarah, Burt or I, once we figured this thing out, I mean, we were optimistic we could win. Once you get that through your head, it’s not like you’re trying to overcome something. [01:31:30] It’s like, this is reality. We just have to get the judge to understand it.
Dwight Coleman: I think that was the biggest part of the whole thing is when Van Sickle made a decision, I knew that at least we got a chance to get this thing rolling. Think that was a big part of that whole thing.
Diane McCabe: Right, right.
Leigh Stein: Sarah, any closing words? Any words of wisdom about what kept you going during [01:32:00] the hardest of the hard times? You lost two houses during this.
Diane McCabe: It wasn’t the pay. I’ll tell you that.
Leigh Stein: Right? Wasn’t the pay. She wasn’t doing it to get rich.
Sarah Vogel: I think a lot of it had to do with the stories I grew up with about Frank and our grandfather, Frank Vogel, and what they went through in the thirties, and fighting for farmers back then. [01:32:30] And those stories resonate. And then the belief that it was like biblical injunction, that the farmers will come through if you stick with the farmers. That’s what you do. It will work out. So that was a lot of the stories from the 1930s and the [01:33:00] 1917s and the Nonpartisan League philosophy. And then knowing, too, that people had gone through very, very hard times in the thirties, and so forth, and yet, they came out of it. So helping the farmers would be worthwhile in the long run and short run, too.
Diane McCabe: Yeah.
Leigh Stein: So on that note, I think we should say thank you to everyone [01:33:30] who came tonight. We are recording it so that other people who weren’t able to be here live will be able to watch it later. We’ll figure out how to share the recording.
Sarah Vogel: Thanks a lot, everybody.