116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Last week the Iowa Supreme Court made it more difficult for rural Iowans to take legal action against odor and water quality issues spawned by confined animal feeding operations housing thousands of hogs. It’s another disappointing ruling from the state’s highest court.
Iowa law shields hog producers from nuisance lawsuits, unless they fail to follow state or federal regulations, unreasonably interfere with plaintiffs’ use of their property for long period of time or fail to use “generally accepted management practices.”
But in 2004, the Supreme Court opened the window for legal action a bit wider, allowing suits to proceed if plaintiffs themselves did not benefit from legal immunity, “sustained significant hardship” or resided on their property long before a confinement moved in.
On Friday, the current Supreme Court threw out that precedent, permitting only the more narrow exemptions from legal immunity contained in the law to stand. It’s bad news for property rights and for efforts to protect the environment.
“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 for the majority in the 4-3 ruling.
“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.
In a pair of dissents, Justices Brent Appel and Christopher McDonald argued that immunity statue violates property rights guarantees that are among the inalienable rights guaranteed by Iowa’s constitution.
“In the end, the legal question presented in this case is a simple one: does the constitution mean what it says? 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,” McDonald wrote.
The problem is the balance Waterman advocates doesn’t exist in Iowa when it comes to the rights of property owners and the interests of confinement operators. The fact a legal liability immunity law even exists is a clear sign of that lack of balance. State regulations governing large-scale hog production are inadequate to say the least. Iowa’s natural resources, which belong to all of us, have taken a beating.
The damage, degradation, and destruction caused by industrial animal feeding operations is well-documented,” McDonald wrote in his dissent.
The Republican-controlled Legislature, of course, should address those issues. But this year, lawmakers declined to act on a bill that would prohibit using eminent domain to grab land for private carbon pipeline projects benefiting ethanol plants. Now, this ruling reduces property rights even more. Voters who value property rights should think about that in November.
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