Federal Magistrate Judge John T. Johnston heard arguments for 55 minutes Tuesday from attorneys representing the activist legal fund R-CALF USA and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the Beef Checkoff program.
Judge Johnston of the U.S. District Court in Montana then took his range of options under advisement. R-CALF wants him to grant a temporary restraining order while Secretary Vilsack believes the challenge to the Beef Checkoff should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction or for failure to state a claim. R-CALF would also settle for a preliminary injunction.
The Beef Checkoff refers to money for marketing and research, including food safety research, to promote the cattle industry. The Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985 gives the Secretary of Agriculture the power to impose a $1 per head charge when cattle are sold.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the R-CALF plaintiffs were represented by attorneys David S. Muraskin and William A. Rossback. Vilsack was represented by Department of Justice attorney Michelle Bennett.
R-CALF, with the long formal name of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, is a Billings, MT-based organization for independent cattle and sheep producers. It sued the secretary May 2, “alleging that the United States Department of Agriculture turns over proceeds from a federal tax on each sale of cattle to the private Montana Beef Council, to fund the council’s private speech, harming R-CALF USA’s members.”
It said “the government-compelled subsidy of the speech of a private entity, which is not effectively controlled by the government, is unconstitutional under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and should be enjoined.”
The R-CALF lawsuit, however, revisits some of the the same ground as a 2005 challenge to the Beef Checkoff program that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found the $1 per head charge for industry marketing and research funds “government speech,” not the commercial speech of individuals..
Should the case go forward, it will continue to be heard by federal Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls, MT.
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