Friday’s ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Christina Armijo surprised me.
I was expecting New Mexico’s top federal judge to issue a permanent injunction barring USDA from providing equine inspection services. Then I thought the U.S. Department of Justice attorneys assigned to represent USDA would appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Armijo’s ruling would be reversed.
My thinking was that New Mexico’s political leadership, from both parties, are enough anti-horse slaughter that the body politic would influence Armijo. It was part of a stereotype I’ve created in my own mind about New Mexican political groupthink.
But surprise me she did, especially by nailing the legal reasoning I thought we would see from a 10th Circuit appeals panel of judges. After reading Armijo’s 33-page decision, I was struck by how clear everything looks now. With some tweaking along the way, Congress has, for more than a century, tasked USDA with inspecting meat and meat products, whether it’s from beef, lamb, pork, horse or whatever else has hooves.
The legal challenge was based on apparently misguided readings of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). Both are about government decision-making where discretion exists, not where government action is mandated.
USDA has a job to do, albeit one that some find unpopular.
In other words, a grant of inspection for meat is a “ministerial act,” the common definition of which is one “performed according to legal authority, established procedures or instructions from a superior, without exercising any individual judgment.”
The concept of the ministerial functions of government is a good thing because it means we don’t have to worry about whether the bureaucrat at the passport agency or building department likes us or not. We still get our passport or building permit based solely on meeting the application requirements.
My powers of prediction went south on this one when all the lawyers involved agreed to a so-called “expedited review.” My mind immediately went to why each side agreed to it. I thought the government attorneys figured they would win on the law once the case got to the Appeals Court in Denver and that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) wanted a trial court win timed for right before a final budget deal is struck in Congress.
HSUS is the power player in this controversy, and it does pursue its goals as a game of chess, not checkers. It seems reasonable to me to think that the end game is this controversy is always Congress, which can continue to stop and start horse-slaughter inspection through the appropriations process.
That’s the reason this is a big loss for HSUS. It was expecting a well-timed win and instead now has to retool for the new reality. With the help of one of the nation’s premiere animal-law experts, it went up against the largest and most powerful law firm in the country, DOJ, but lost.
Sort of like St. Louis and Boston in the World Series. Neither has anything to be ashamed about. And, for the record, I also thought St. Louis would win.
Attorney Wagman has already filed his notice of appeal to the 10th Circuit, and HSUS has vowed to continue the fight at the state level and in Congress. (They retool fast.)
Blair Dunn, the Albuquerque attorney representing Valley Meat in New Mexico and Rains Natural Meat in Missouri says his clients are ready to call in the USDA inspectors and begin packing horsemeat for human consumption abroad as soon as tomorrow.
The fact that I was wrong on how this chapter came out makes me doubt my ability to predict what happens from here. I did not think at this point in the story that we’d be hearing HSUS chief Wayne Pacelle refer to “the very real prospect” of horse slaughter resuming in the states.
Yes, that is now a very real prospect. But, this hotly contested dispute was, in a sense, contained for the past four months in a single courtroom in Albuquerque. Now it is again busting out all over.© Food Safety News