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Nat'l Meat Ass'n v. Harris

Supreme Court Curtails State Ability to Protect Consumers

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) trumps state consumer protection efforts. AARP had filed a "friend of the court" brief asking the Court to uphold a California law seeking to protect consumers of meat products.

 Background

Following graphic news reports showing extremely sick cows being dragged off to slaughter, the State of California enacted a law prohibiting slaughterhouses from selling meat from nonambulatory sick animals. The state law also required the slaughterhouses to humanely euthanize animals who were unable to walk and that exhibited certain diseases. A trade association representing slaughterhouses filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the California law on the grounds that it overlapped with a federal law, the FMIA, and noting that when such a conflict occurs federal law trumps state law. A federal appeals court disagreed, finding that the federal law did not expressly exempt the California law and the slaughterhouses appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

AARP, along with Public Citizen and other consumer advocacy organizations, filed a "friend of the court" brief asking the Supreme Court to affirm the decision of the appellate court. The brief, filed by AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys, noted that while there are situations where federal laws override conflicting state laws, there is a "presumption against preemption" by federal laws that do not expressly preempt state consumer protection laws. The brief argued that nothing Congress did in enacting FMIA indicated its intent to preclude the state law; and that if FMIA is at all ambiguous, legal precedent dictates that the courts should uphold the state law.

The Supreme Court disagreed. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled: "The FMIA regulates slaughterhouses' handling and treatment of nonambulatory pigs from the moment of their delivery though the end of the meat production process. California's [law] endeavors to regulate the same thing, at the same time, in the same place – except by imposing different requirements. The FMIA expressly preempts such a state law," wrote the Court.

What's at Stake

The Court's decision clearly limits a state's ability to regulate slaughterhouses for consumer protection. While the specific issue addressed in this case deals with the limited topic of slaughterhouses, preemption cases can affect a wide range of issues important to older people, including financial fraud, home lending and other financial services, where both federal and state governments have oversight but where state laws often provide far stronger protections for consumers.

Case Status

National Meat Association v. Harris was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

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