Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in his majority opinion upholding the constitutionality of the beef checkoff, wrote: “The message set out in the beef promotions is from beginning to end the message established by the Federal Government.”
Handed down in May 2005, Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Association confirmed the checkoff’s status as government speech. The vote brought together an unusual alliance of justices who often represented polar extremes. Voting with Scalia was Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Some 13 years later, tensions remain high over America’s beef checkoff, with a new legal challenge that seeks to deliver a crippling blow to the state beef councils in 15 states (see Contentious Battle Continues Over the Beef Checkoff). The lawsuit was filed against the Montana Beef Council last year by Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF), alleging that state beef councils are private entities and are not subject to the ruling of the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision.
Defending this new case is USDA, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). R-CALF is supported in its efforts by the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) and lead counsel David Muraskin of Public Justice.
Outside the courtroom, R-CALF and OCM have come under scrutiny for their ties to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), an animal rights organization with a history of legal battles seeking to undermine food animal production. Both R-CALF and OCM deny any relationship or monetary help from HSUS, though it’s clear Public Justice attorneys are on the case pro bono until—should they prevail—they can petition the court for their fees.
Despite denials of any relationship with HSUS, coincidental connections between the groups and its players are disturbing. For instance, “Public Justice is supported by trial lawyers and radical environmentalists,” says Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom. “One of its two food project attorneys formerly worked for HSUS. It’s outrageous that R-CALF is joining hands with a fanatical anti-agriculture activist group and their lawyers.”
Ironically, should R-CALF prevail in the case, checkoff collections will continue, though 15 states could lose control of their half of that money. Managing those funds would become the responsibility of the CBB, which would mean a smaller voice for local cattlemen, not a larger one.
Consumer demands are rapidly evolving. Twitter, for instance, didn’t exist when
Scalia declared the checkoff constitutional, and checkoff-funded programs such as social media campaigns are crucial today.
Logic suggests it is time to end the bitter industry infighting and legal maneuvers over the beef checkoff.