Student Brittany Rowe Presents in Federal Court
On Thursday, February 11, 2021, Brittany Rowe ’21 appeared in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York via Zoom on behalf of seven animal protection organizations represented by the Animal Law Litigation Clinic at the Center for Animal Law Studies. She also spoke up for the interests of the more than 500,000 downed pigs who enter slaughterhouses in the U.S. annually.
“The oral argument was both exciting and a little nerve-wracking, particularly knowing I was arguing against a seasoned DOJ trial attorney, but thanks to the thorough moot court sessions I felt well prepared and enjoyed the experience. I am hopeful the judge will deny the government’s motion to dismiss so we can move forward in arguing the merits of the case.” At the conclusion of the hearing, the court commended counsel for the excellent briefing and oral argument and took the motion under advisement.
A year ago, in February 2020, the Animal Law Litigation Clinic filed the lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of organizations challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) failure to protect downed pigs—pigs who are too injured or sick to stand or walk. According to industry estimates, more than 500,000 downed pigs arrive at U.S. slaughterhouses annually. The lawsuit—Farm Sanctuary v. Perdue—argues that allowing downed animals to be slaughtered for human consumption incentivizes subjecting sick and injured animals to inhumane transport and handling to try to get them to stand and walk, including shocking, prodding, kicking, and dragging. Downed pigs are also at a heightened risk of carrying a host of human-transmissible pathogens, including Listeria, Campylobacter, Salmonella, swine flu, and Yersinia.
Almost two decades ago, in 2002, Congress amended the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA)—which governs not just the slaughter of animals but also their handling at the slaughterhouse—to direct the Secretary of Agriculture to investigate and report to Congress on a host of issues related to nonambulatory livestock, including humane handling, and, based on this report, to promulgate any regulations needed to protect these animals. The USDA has never reported on nonambulatory pigs, even though pigs comprise approximately 75% of animals that the agency regulates under the HMSA. In short, the USDA has defied Congress’s long-standing mandate. In addition, the agency denied a petition for rulemaking seeking a prohibition on the slaughter of downed pigs for human consumption. The ALLC’s lawsuit challenges the failure to comply with the 2002 mandates and the denial of the petition for rulemaking.
In response to the lawsuit, the USDA failed to come forward with the report (despite initially claiming to have prepared it). Instead, the agency filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, contending that the organizations lack standing to bring it. For a dispute to be within a federal court’s jurisdiction, the plaintiff must have “standing”—that is, they must have an injury caused by the dispute that the court can redress.
The ALLC provided a brief opposing the motion and sworn statements from the organizations and some of their members detailing the injuries they suffer as a result of the USDA’s failure to protect downed pigs, including impairment of their ability to fulfill their animal-protection missions and conduct their mission-critical work, and diversions of resources to counteract these harms. The USDA’s abdication also harms the organizations’ members who face increased risks of contracting numerous potentially fatal and drug-resistant diseases. Then arose the opportunity that law students rarely get: the court granted the ALLC’s request for oral argument on the motion to dismiss.
While arguing in court is a normal part of the job of a litigator, it is uncommon for a law student to appear in court. Through law clinics like the ALLC, students gain important litigation skills they would otherwise have to wait to practice until after graduation, such as arguing in court. While trial advocacy courses provide law students with important training, there is no better way to learn than through actually arguing in court. The ALLC provides this type of unparalleled opportunity for aspiring lawyers and was featured in National Jurist for its unique approach. Moreover, the ALLC is the only legal clinic in the world that focuses on farmed animal protection, an area that Brittany is passionate about and committed to advancing.
“Advocating for farmed animals is particularly important because of the sheer number of animal lives impacted and the apparent lack of protection that they face,” says Rowe. She points out that “administrative agencies tasked with enforcing federal statutes often fail to honor their obligations, such as the ongoing failure of the USDA to regulate downed pigs. Each of these failures leaves farmed animals vulnerable to cruelty and inhumane treatment on an enormous scale.”
The robust preparations for Brittany’s day in court began weeks earlier, as ALLC students worked together to prepare her for the oral argument. Through numerous moot court sessions (i.e., practice oral arguments) students and leading attorneys strategized which arguments would be most persuasive and helped Brittany learn the case law inside and out. ALLC student Sarah Rogers even played the role of the USDA’s attorney in arguments to help Brittany refine and hone her responses.
Now, Brittany and the other ALLC students await the ruling, along with their clients. Whatever the outcome, Brittany is deeply appreciative of the opportunity and she says the experience undoubtedly improved her skills as a future attorney. “It was such an honor to have the chance to argue in federal court on behalf of our clients and to advocate for better legal protection for downed pigs. Being part of the ALLC has provided invaluable practical experience I never imagined I would get as a law student. I am so grateful for the ALLC, Professor Winders, my clinic colleagues, and everyone who participated in helping me prepare for the argument.”
Rowe plans to use her skills after graduation this spring, as she hopes to work in the field of animal protection. Clinical Professor Delcianna Winders, Director of the ALLC, beams as she sums up her thoughts about the hard work and oral argument performance of Brittany and the other ALLC students in a single word: “Proud.”