WASHINGTON -- December 8 -- Independent ranchers had their day in court today as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of the mandatory beef checkoff.
The government did not present a compelling case today, said Skip Waters, a rancher from Moorcroft, Wyo. I expect the Supreme Court will agree with us and will end this unfair, undemocratic, and unconstitutional beef checkoff.
Waters attended the hearing as a representative of the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), a party in the case.
Waters said the beef checkoff violates the First Amendment right to free speech and free association.
The beef checkoff makes ranchers pay for speech and advertising they do not support, Waters said. It forces ranchers to associate with the views of the National Cattlemens Beef Associations (NCBA), views that are contrary to the interests of independent cattle producers.
Ranchers oppose the NCBAs generic advertisements, funded by checkoff, because the ads do not differentiate between high quality U.S. beef and foreign beef in the domestic market.
Waters said many ranchers favor mandatory country-of-origin labeling, a ban on packer ownership of cattle, and reform of anticompetitive market contracts.
The NCBA opposes these measures, he said.
Ranchers have been denied a vote on whether to continue the checkoff program, and they have no say in how the checkoff money is spent, according to Waters.
Created by Congress, the beef checkoff became mandatory in 1988. Since then, ranchers have paid one dollar on the sale of every head of cattle. Checkoff assessment revenue totals over $80 million annually.
The NCBA receives about two-thirds of the fees to do research, promotion, and public relations under contracts with the Cattlemens Beef Board (CBB), which oversees the checkoff. Checkoff funds made up 87% of NCBAs budget in 2002. The NCBA and CBB share offices, staff, and a website.
Constitutional law expert Laurence H. Tribe argued the case on behalf of WORC and the Livestock Marketing Association (LMA). Tribe prevailed in a 2001 Supreme Court decision striking down the mushroom checkoff, which is nearly identical to the beef checkoff.
WORC and LMA sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in December 2000 to gain a vote of cattle producers on the checkoff. The case was amended in August 2001 after the Supreme Court ended the mushroom checkoff. In June 2002, U.S. District Judge Charles Kornmann ruled the beef checkoff violated cattle producers First Amendment rights by compelling them to pay for speech with which they disagreed.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Kornmanns decision in July 2003, and the full Eighth Circuit denied a petition for rehearing.
In May 2004, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case after an appeal by the Justice Department.
The Supreme Court will rule on the beef checkoff by July 2005.
WORC is a network of grassroots organizations from seven states that includes 8,750 members and 50 local community groups. WORC represents farmers, ranchers, and consumers in Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, Idaho, and Oregon.
A chronology of the case and links to court filings and rulings are available at www.worc.org/issues/art_issues/CHECKOFF.html.