WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices carved into California's ban on the commercial slaughter of lame livestock Wednesday, leaving the state law's future in doubt.
In a case that pits state vs. federal power, justices repeatedly suggested that California went too far with protecting animals already regulated by federal law and overseen by the U.S. Agriculture Department.
"California should butt out," Justice Antonin Scalia said at one point.
Although more bluntly phrased than most, Scalia's seeming skepticism toward California's livestock-protection law appeared to be widely shared during the hourlong oral argument. No justice seemed sympathetic to the state's case, and some at times sounded downright impatient.
Never miss a local story.
"I don't see how you can argue that you're not trenching on the scope of the (federal) statute," Justice Sonia Sotomayor told California's deputy attorney general, Susan K. Smith.
Sounding dubious, Sotomayor later suggested that Smith was "not seriously arguing" a particular point, while Scalia said of one of Smith's arguments, "That can't be right."
The California law in question prohibits the slaughter of non-ambulatory pigs, sheep, goats or cattle. These are animals that can't walk, because of disease, injury or other causes. The state law further requires that the downed animals be euthanized.
Federal law bans the slaughter of downed cattle, and the challenge heard Wednesday was to the state provision that covers swine.
The Federal Meat Inspection Act specifies that a state can't impose slaughterhouse protections "in addition to or different" from the federal requirements. The National Meat Association, in challenging the state law, argues that the state violated this pre-emption rule.
"A slaughterhouse worker who is on the premises needs to have one set of rules that the worker follows so that the worker knows that if he follows the advice of a federal inspector ... that the slaughterhouse worker won't go to jail," attorney Steven J. Wells argued Wednesday for the meat association.
"Congress has unmistakably ordained that one set of rules govern animal handling and treatment, inspection and determinations of meat quality for sale at federally inspected slaughterhouses from California to Maine," Wells said.
California's attorney responded that the federal law leaves open some possibilities for state regulation, with Smith repeating several times that the California law was "not within the scope" of the federal law and its pre-emption.
Seemingly unconvinced, Justice Elena Kagan said California appeared to be "trying to do the exact same thing" that the Agriculture Department was responsible for, while Justice Stephen Breyer agreed that "slaughtering animals, indeed humanely, is something the (federal) act absolutely deals with."
Alaska, Washington and 11 other states are siding publicly with California, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is siding with the meat association and the livestock industry.
The question for the Supreme Court goes beyond slaughter rules to potentially include any state law that could clash with a federal statute.
States want to be able to pass their own laws without being constantly upstaged by federal action. As protection, they want the court to sustain what they call the "long-held" policy that presumes state laws aren't pre-empted unless the federal law explicitly says so.
The California law that's being challenged passed after a graphic Humane Society of the United States video was released in January 2008. The video depicted brutal treatment of livestock at Hallmark Meat Packing Co. and Westland Meat Co. Inc., in Chino, Calif.
The video showed non-ambulatory cattle being kicked, electrocuted, dragged with chains and rammed with forklifts. In some cases, workers motivated cattle by spraying pressurized water into their nostrils.
The resulting outcry triggered the largest beef recall in U.S. history, in addition to the state law.
The National Meat Association successfully argued before Fresno, Calif.,-based U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill that the Federal Meat Inspection Act pre-empted the state law, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned O'Neill.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Supreme Court to hear case on downed livestock
Follow Michael Doyle on Twitter