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June 16, 2014

Federal Court Ruling on 'Crush Videos' Just the Latest to Affirm Value of Animal Protection Legislation

It's still a crime to sell videos showing appalling forms of animal cruelty, after a federal appeals court upheld a federal anti-cruelty law Friday. This is just the latest in a string of federal court decisions, upholding the authority of Congress and the states to take action on a wide range of abuses against animals. I sat down this weekend with Jonathan Lovvorn, The HSUS’ senior vice president and chief counsel for Animal Protection Litigation, and discussed Friday’s ruling and a string of other important federal court cases – and how The HSUS’ work with legislative bodies and with the courts has been transformational for our movement.

Wayne: The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday reinstated a federal law that bans the sale of "animal crush" videos—horrific videos where men force women to torture animals for their sexual pleasure.  We know that state laws against cruelty are grounded on a solid legal basis, but it seems to me that this is meaningful to have this appellate court ruling on a federal anti-cruelty statute.

Jonathan:  Yes, this is one of the most important court decisions of 2014.  You'll remember that a few years ago the Supreme Court struck down a 1999 federal statute banning the possession and sale of animal crush videos in United States v. Stevens.  In response, The HSUS’ federal affairs and litigation teams worked with our allies in Congress to pass a new, constitutionally-sound ban on animal crush videos.  But last year a Texas district court struck that law down on First Amendment grounds as well.  So we joined with our pro bono partners at Latham & Watkins to persuade the Court of Appeals that the district court erred badly in assessing the law and this case. Last Friday, the court affirmed that Congress has a legitimate interest in preventing the “wanton torture and killing” behind animal crush videos and “that, as demonstrated by federal and state animal-cruelty laws, society has deemed worthy of criminal sanction.” The ruling bolsters the authority of the federal government and the states to set standards to prevent cruelty to all animals. 

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The HSUS' litigation unit is focused on making sure that state and federal laws against staged animal fights are fully enforced.
Photo: The HSUS

Wayne: The HSUS and the Humane Society Legislative Fund, our lobbying arm, have worked methodically to fortify federal and state laws against dogfighting and cockfighting.  The original federal animal fighting law, enacted in 1976, was weak, and not enforced at all for a quarter century.  But we worked with Congress to upgrade that law in 2002, making all interstate and foreign transport of fighting animals a federal crime, and we started working with federal officials on some cases.  In 2007, we worked to upgrade penalties – to a felony – for the underlying crime, and in subsequent upgrades, banned the possession of fighting animals and the interstate transport of cockfighting implements.  This year, we worked with our allies in Congress to make it a crime to attend or bring a child to an animal fight. Of course, that rapid progress has rattled cockfighters, who have brought a series of constitutional challenges to the animal fighting laws.  

Jonathan:  Just a decade ago, it was legal in some states to attend a dogfight or stage a cockfight. No longer, because of the efforts of The HSUS, HSLF, and other organizations. Our litigation unit has now been focused on making sure these state and federal laws against staged animal fights are fully enforced, and also on fending off a series of constitutional challenges against the laws. Last year, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a key ruling upholding Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause to ban even localized animal fighting due to the interstate nature of organized cockfighting rings.

Wayne: In the states, animal welfare groups, led by The HSUS and HSLF, have helped to pass about 1,000 laws in the last decade.  But as we succeed in passing these laws, it is inevitable that our opponents will try to get judicial review and to invalidate them by invoking a range of legal theories. Just take California in the last few years. Shark fin dealers challenged the ban on the possession and sale of shark fins, foie gras producers challenged the ban on the sale of foie gras from force-fed birds, and now some states are challenging the ban on the sale of cruelly-produced eggs.  We helped pass all of these laws, so it’s so important that we defend them.

Jonathan: It’s an important indicator of our movement’s progress that we now spend most of our time enforcing the law and defending our legislative victories. In these cases, someone is usually claiming some type of constitutional right to abuse animals—whether it’s the “right” to cram animals into tiny cages, the “right” to fight animals for gambling, or the “right” to crush animals to make obscene videos. Our opponents march into the courts because they have already lost in the court of public opinion and in the nation’s legislatures. Ironically, this was traditionally the recourse of the animal protection community—shut out of the political process, and focused primarily on difficult legal challenges to policies that had already been decided against us. This noticeable inversion in position—wherein those who profit from animal cruelty and abuse are now the ones stuck filing the last-gasp legal challenges — is an unmistakable sign that we are winning.

Wayne: The courts have also sided with us on the power of the states to ban the sale of horse meat for human consumption.  While we’re working tirelessly in Congress to ban the slaughter of all American horses, it’s so important that we maintain the state protections for horses.

Jonathan: We got our first big win on horse slaughter in 2007, when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Texas’ ban on horse slaughter. Later that year we helped close the last horse slaughterhouse on American soil when we helped lead a coalition to pass and defend a ban on horse slaughter in Illinois.  In upholding that law, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that “States have a legitimate interest in prolonging the lives of animals” and promoting the “humane treatment of our fellow animals.” Last year, when horse slaughter threatened to resume in New Mexico, Iowa and Missouri, we filed a series of legal challenges that managed to halt these plans long enough for our legislative team to secure a Congressional rider to block any plants from opening in the United States. This type of integrated legal and legislative strategy is something only The HSUS has the capacity and sophistication to deploy successfully, and one of the major reason for our successes.

Wayne: Tell us what kind of human resources The HSUS has assembled to draft well-crafted bills, to enforce the law, to defend our gains in court, and to challenge overreaching and restrictive statutes by our adversaries.

Jonathan: In 2005, after the corporate combination with The Fund for Animals, we started building up in our house and pro bono legal team. It now consists of 25 attorneys, who specialize in many different areas of the law – wildlife, farm animals, anti-cruelty and international law. Our in-house experts partner with hundreds of cooperating attorneys, and many of the biggest, most respected law firms in the country.  This combined public interest and private practice legal “team” is the most important aggregation of legal talent that has ever been assembled in our movement, and you can see some pretty remarkable results from this investment of donor dollars and pro bono engagement. We are grateful every day that our supporters have enabled this new, critical legal capacity for a movement that has rather dramatically moved into the realm of public policy and law enforcement. The federal courts have proved essential on a wide range of other social reform movements – from the earliest civil rights victories to the enormous string of recent judicial decisions affirming marriage equality – so it’s logical that this would be a critical arena for our movement, too.

Click here for more information on The HSUS’ litigation program.

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