McClatchy Newspapers
Created: 11/09/2011 01:39:10 AM PST

California’s ban on the commercial slaughter of downed livestock will come before the Supreme Court today, in a case that pits state against federal power.

Gruesome videos and gory facts drove California lawmakers to impose the ban on downed animal slaughter following the scandal at a Chino meat packing house in 2008. Justices, though, will be focused on something a little more antiseptic: whether federal law pre-empts state law.

The Obama administration says it does, siding with the National Meat Association in challenging California’s prohibition.

California lawmakers, allied with Humane Society of the United States activists who exposed the slaughter of downed animals at Hallmark Meat Packing Co. and the Westland Meat Co. Inc. in Chino, claim that states have the authority to act on their own.

“Cruelty to animals, in particular, has traditionally been regulated by the states, going back nearly 400 years to the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” said J. Scott Ballenger, an attorney for the Humane Society and other groups.

The state law in question governs the handling of downed livestock. These are animals that are so sick or weak that they can’t stand on their own. The California law bans their commercial slaughter. Federal law similarly bans the use of downed cattle, but permits the use of downed swine and sheep.

California’s Los Angeles- based deputy attorney general, Susan K. Smith, will represent the state today, matched up
against Minneapolis-based lawyer Steven Wells, who represents the meat association, and an Obama administration lawyer.

Their abstract arguments will have roots in a gritty undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States. In January 2008, the organization released a video that depicted brutal treatment of livestock at the Chino abattoir.

The video showed non-ambulatory cows, unable to stand or walk without assistance, being kicked, electrocuted, dragged with chains and rammed with forklifts.

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