Hot Docs: Supreme Court says states can’t ban downer animal slaughter

January 26, 2012

SCOTUS downer animalsPreemption, the principle that federal law trumps state law where they conflict, was a pretty big topic for the Supreme Court’s last term, and it seems that it also will be so during its current term.

Last May, the Supreme Court decided Chamber of Commerce of U.S. v. Whiting, a ruling that completely hinged on preemption.

The majority ended up ruling that federal law didn’t preempt Arizona’s law, and they reasoned it out in such a way to make me think that the Court’s new trend was to err on the side of the states in preemption conflicts (for more about my thoughts on the case, check out this post).

Of course, PLIVA, Inc v. Mensing came along the next month and changed my opinion (the ruling found that federal law preempted state tort law in the area of inadequate labeling, thus preventing consumers from bringing state law claims against generic drug manufacturers).

My new theory is that the Supreme Court’s findings in federal preemption cases are greatly influenced by the subject of the laws in question.

Specifically, the finding of preemption is affected by the ideology behind the law.

Is it a bit cynical?


But is it accurate?

Perhaps, but I’d still like to test the theory at least once.

Fortunately for me, the Supreme Court ruled on a federal preemption case on Monday: National Meat Association v. Harris.

Hot Doc: Nat’l Meat Ass’n v. Harris

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

The state law?

Amendments to California Penal Code § 599f that were prompted by a 2008 video released by the Humane Society depicting abuse of nonambulatory cows (cows that are unable to stand or walk without assistance) in a California slaughterhouse.

Specifically, the video depicted nonambulatory cows being, among other things, kicked, electrocuted, dragged with chains, and rammed with forklifts.

The penal code amendments prevented slaughterhouses (and most livestock dealers) from buying, selling, or receiving a nonambulatory animal, and from butchering or selling the meat of a nonambulatory animal.

In addition, the amendments required slaughterhouses to immediately and humanely euthanize a nonambulatory animal in its possession.

While animal cruelty prevention was part of the impetus for these changes, public health concerns were also cited since downers were more likely to be diseased.

The federal law preempting it?

The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), which actually contains an express preemption provision:

Requirements within the scope of this chapter with respect to premises, facilities and operations of any establishment at which inspection is provided under subchapter I of this chapter, which are in addition to, or different than those made under this chapter may not be imposed by any State….

What do subchapter I’s requirements pertain to?

The Supreme Court in WashingtonAs one might expect, to meat inspection.

So does the FMIA preempt California’s laws that essentially ban the use of downer animals in meat for human consumption?

According to the Supreme Court, it does.


Because of a small provision in the FMIA containing a label to be used after inspections to determine the health of animals arriving at a slaughterhouse.

The label – U.S. Suspect – includes nonambulatory animals, and details requirements in dealing with them.

So, does my theory work in this case?

Considering that the Supreme Court decision was unanimous, it’s hard to say without first looking at whether the law was applied correctly.

If I squint hard enough, I guess I can see how the Court reached the conclusion that it did.

However, Chief Judge Kozinski’s opinion on the case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is far more convincing, leaving me with the conclusion that the Court must have really stretched to reach its result, and there are ideological ulterior motives behind it.

Why the Court’s conservatives did this is easy to figure out: the decision rolled back strict corporate regulations.

It’s a little trickier when it comes to the Court liberals.

Nevertheless, considering that animal cruelty laws (at least ones pertaining to livestock) have never found broad support, even among liberals, it’s entirely likely that the Court liberals’ ideological tendency to support federal preemption overrode any support for livestock protection.

So the theory works here, although, I’ll admit, somewhat tenuously.

Considering that this case isn’t the last that the Supreme Court will hear on federal preemption, I’ll have ample more chances to test my cynical little theory.