116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
So agricultural interests were handed a nice win by the Iowa Supreme Court on Friday. Raise your hand if you’re surprised.
In the case of Garrison v. New Fashion Pork and BWT Holdings, the court overturned an 18-year-old precedent limiting legal immunity for confined animal feeding operations. Even after Gacke, it was tough to sue a livestock producer for infringing on your property rights by making where you live smell like manure and fouling local waterways. Now it’s even tougher.
State law shields hog producers from nuisance lawsuits related to their operations. Gacke created a three part test that, if all the boxes are checked, a nuisance lawsuit could still move forward. If plaintiffs, usually a neighbors, didn’t also benefit from immunity, if they sustained “significant hardship,” and if they lived on their property long before a confinement moved in, the lawsuit would get its day in court.
In a 4-3 ruling, the current court tossed the Gacke test.
“Protecting and promoting livestock production is a legitimate state interest, and granting partial immunity from nuisance suits is a proper means to that end,” Justice Thomas Waterman wrote in the court’s majority opinion.
There are days when I’m pretty sure it’s the only state interest.
Waterman argued that, under the existing statute, you can still take legal action against producers who aren’t following federal or state regulations, when a confinement “unreasonably and for a substantial period of time interferes” with a plaintiff’s property use or when operations don’t follow “existing, prudent generally accepted management practices …”
That’s weak state regulations. There, I fixed it for you. And in Iowa, “generally accepted” means they’ve been certified by the Iowa Farm Bureau.
“Balancing the competing interests of CAFO operators and their neighbors is a quintessentially legislative function involving policy choices our constitution places with the elected branches,” Waterman wrote.
Balance? This is comedy gold, as in the Golden Dome of Wisdom. Unless you’re saying it’s a quintessential example of a legislature bought and paid for by large, powerful agricultural organizations, large-scale hog producers and agribusiness corporations. Our hogs we prize and our environment, and property rights, we will not maintain.
Dissenting Justice Christopher McDonald argued the immunity law itself is unconstitutional. “Do the men and women of this state have the constitutional right to protect their property? The text of the constitution, precedent, and history say yes. The majority says no,” he wrote.
This latest ruling reminded me of a knee-slapper from the court in 2021 dismissing a lawsuit brought by environmental groups demanding the state do something about the algae-choked, nitrate filled Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for 500,000 Iowans.
"In the end, we believe it would exceed our institutional role to 'hold the state accountable to the public,'" Justice Edward Mansfield wrote in the court’s courageous majority opinion.
It’s quite a game. Big Ag pretends it’s a steward of the land. The Supreme Court pretends we have a Legislature that cares more about 3 million people than 23 million hogs and the donors who profit from them. The Environmental Protection Commission pretends to protect the environment. Voters pretend it doesn’t affect them.
I pretend writing about it matters.
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