By: Dan Flynn
Four months into litigation aimed at preventing horses from being legally slaughtered in the United States, animal law attorney Bruce A. Wagman is already citing Front Range Equine Rescue v. Vilsack as one of the “illustrative representations” of his experience.
Others might just call it a win. M. Christina Armijo, chief U.S. District Court judge for New Mexico, has already granted Wagman’s clients a temporary restraining order in the case. He wants a permanent injunction against USDA inspecting any horse-slaughter facilities in the U.S.
Wagman and Rocky N. Unruh, an expert in complex trials, are San Francisco attorneys from the national Schiff Hardin law firm, which has 400 attorneys based out of Chicago. Among the 15 plaintiffs Wagman and Unruh represent is one definitely large enough to pay their fees, the Humane Society of the United States.
With prestigious offices on L Street in Washington, D.C., and annual revenues that were approaching $200 million when last reported two years ago, HSUS is a nonprofit that can easily keep Wagman and Unruh in its legal stable.
In addition to more than two decades of experience litigating animal law cases, Wagman literally wrote the book on the subject. His “Animal Law: Cases and Materials” is in its fourth edition as a law school textbook.
Wagman’s job this time is to stop three small businesses located in rural areas of Iowa, Missouri, and New Mexico that saw an opportunity two years ago when the federal government’s ban on horse slaughter was lifted. All three went through an extensive process in requesting a so-called “grant of inspection” from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
Plaintiffs filed to block that from happening just as USDA decided to provide inspection services to the three businesses, Responsible Transportation in Iowa, Rains Natural Meats in Missouri, and Valley Meats in New Mexico. All three planned to pack horsemeat for export.
That’s when Wagman won the temporary restraining order. Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys for the three named defendants in the case — Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen and FSIS Administrator Al Almanza — then suggested speeding up the case by skipping all preliminary arguments.
Wagman and Unruh agreed. For the past six weeks, there’s been a flurry of motions and arguments going back and forth. And while there has been no scheduled or target date announced for Armijo’s ruling on the merits of the case, Wagman seems to be winning the preliminary decisions.
For example, Armijo ruled against the government when USDA sought to have the Declaration of Dr. Daniel L. Engeljohn entered as a supplement to the administrative record. Engeljohn is arguably USDA’s top expert on horse slaughter and was the official directly in charge of the administrative process.
Also, the magistrate judge responsible for processing requests for injunction bonds denied the request of Rains Natural Meats. Valley Meats and Responsible Transportation, which were both included in the original injunction, did require bonds, but Rains was not because it came later.
However, since USDA was enjoined by additional court action from providing inspection services to Rains, that business faces similar jeopardy.