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Opinion analysis: The Ninth Circuit, like hogs to the slaughter

Justice Kagan today wrote the Court’s unanimous opinion in National Meat Association v. Harris,  holding that the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) preempts a California statute relating to non-ambulatory animals.  Such is the life of the junior Justice.

For those of you who do not have it memorized, the FMIA regulates slaughterhouses.  Regulations implementing the Act provide for an “ante-mortem” inspection of animals.  Non-ambulatory animals are classified as Condemned or (for less serious conditions) Suspect, the latter of which may permit their use for meat.  The FMIA regulations also address the humane treatment of non-ambulatory animals.

The California law challenged in this case forbids a slaughterhouse to “buy, sell, or receive a nonambulatory animal,” process or sell its meat, or hold it without immediately euthanizing it.  The question in the case is the validity of that statute under a provision of the FMIA that preempts state requirements “within the scope” of the statute that relate to slaughterhouse “premises, facilities and operations,” and are “in addition to, or different than those made under” the FMIA.

The Supreme Court held that the preemption clause “sweeps widely,” including with respect to “nonconflicting” provisions of state law.  The Court found it dispositive that state law would in certain cases prohibit holding a non-ambulatory animal, or using its meat, in circumstances that would be permitted by the FMIA.

The Court also rejected the Humane Society’s argument that the California statute is valid when applied to purchases of animals off slaughterhouse premises.  The Court viewed that provision as functionally a regulation of slaughterhouses’ handling of non-ambulatory animals.

Finally, the Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s theory that the statute is not preempted because it excludes an entire class of animals from being used for meat.  The Supreme Court reasoned that the FMIA itself regulates animals that will not be turned into meat, and also regulates humane treatment of animals rather than merely food safety.

One further note.  The Kagan chambers announced in a concluding footnote that they had all become vegetarians.  Not really. Today was a mixed day for Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit, who both authored the Ninth Circuit’s unanimously reversed decision in National Meat Association and also joined that court’s unanimously summarily reversed decision in Ryburn v. Huff.  On the brighter side, however, the Court’s decision today in Jones appears to have vindicated the Chief Judge’s dissent from the denial of rehearing en banc in Pineda-Moreno v. United States (No. 10-7515), which will likely be sent back to the Ninth Circuit for further consideration in light of Jones.

Recommended Citation: Tom Goldstein, Opinion analysis: The Ninth Circuit, like hogs to the slaughter, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 23, 2012, 11:07 AM),