Sarah Vogel is an attorney, advocate, and author of “The Farmer’s Lawyer,” a memoir about her landmark class action lawsuit, Coleman v. Block. She brought this historic case when she was a young lawyer and single mother against the federal government on behalf of 240,000 family farmers facing foreclosure during the 1980s farm crisis. She’s spent most of her career as an advocate for family farmers, women, and Native Americans. Sarah also served two terms as North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture, and was the first woman in U.S. history to be elected to this position in any state.
Sarah is a compulsive reader – she usually has five to 10 books going at a time. She’s also a triathlete, which involves swimming, biking, and “the world’s slowest jog.” Sarah also belongs to a lot of organizations that focus on environmental justice, legal justice and people-driven politics.
Why did you become a lawyer? What interested you about legal work?
I became a lawyer because my father, Robert Vogel, was a lawyer, and he made the practice of law appear to be a wonderful profession in which one could help people. That part was true. He also made it appear easy. And that part was not true.
When did you first hear about the ACLU?
My father was the head of the team of legal volunteers for the ACLU of North Dakota, back when there was a separate North Dakota chapter of the ACLU. My father was a very proud card-carrying member of the ACLU, as I am now.
When I was in law school at NYU, I attended meetings of the law student chapter of the ACLU and I volunteered for a “fair hearing” project on behalf of women and young children threatened with the loss of their public assistance benefits — the very means of their survival. This project was triggered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Goldberg v. Kelly decision that established the right to procedural due process (a fair hearing) in certain government programs. The Goldberg ruling was immensely important years later when I worked on the national class action Coleman v. Block, the subject of my new book, “The Farmer’s Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight for the Family Farm.” During this case, Burt Neuborne, then litigation director for the National ACLU, joined the case as a co-counsel and his participation was critical to the success of the case.
How does the ACLU and our work relate to you personally?
Procedural due process is something about which I feel very strongly. When I became Commissioner of Agriculture (I was the first woman in U.S. history to be elected to such a position), I was able to insist on neutral hearing officers for all of our regulatory enforcement work. Because we were fair to the people who were accused of violations of laws and regulations, by providing a neutral hearing officer and fair procedures, the Department of Agriculture never had to go to court to defend any of our administrative decisions.
I also feel very strongly about freedom of speech and the right of assembly. I’m very much opposed to the tactics used by the state of North Dakota during the DAPL protests several years ago. I don’t do criminal law, but I was one of the petitioners to successfully obtain permission from the North Dakota Supreme Court for out-of-state volunteer lawyers to come in to represent DAPL protesters at their trials. My only lament is that the ACLU and I are on opposite sides on Citizens’ United case. I stand with Burt Neuborne and my former constitutional law professor Norman Dorsen on this principle, which eventually led to the founding of the Brennan Center for Justice, whose work I also support and follow.
What was it like working with the ACLU on Coleman v. Block?
It was wonderful! Burt is a brilliant lawyer, author, and law professor (he now teaches at NYU Law and Berkeley Law) and he was a lot of fun to work with too! He also helped out on the expenses of discovery, and he volunteered the entire ACLU legal team if needed to enforce the national class action.
Your book tells the story of ordinary citizens who stuck together to fight for a moral economy and fair treatment from their government. Why do you think it’s so important to hold the powerful to account?
All of today’s challenges – climate change, ethics in government, fair elections, fair taxation, access to nutritious food, clean air and water – require participation from ordinary citizens. This participation is essential to ensure that the power of government serves all the people, not just some people.
What lessons learned from your fight in the 1980s can people apply to their lives today?
Sometimes, when the executive branch and the legislative branch fall short, the solution lies in the judicial branch. Instead of lamenting or complaining, get organized and see if there is a legal solution.
Writing from the ancestral homelands of the Dakota, Lakota, Nu'eta, Sahnish, Hidatsa, and Anishinaabe peoples.
“The Farmer’s Lawyer” will be available for purchase on Nov. 2. Pre-order a copy of the book before then and get access to an exclusive virtual event with author Sarah Vogel and some of the family farmers and lawyers who played a role in the dramatic legal battle at the heart of the book.