When Congress passes a statute and the Secretary of Agriculture issues a notice in the Federal Register interpreting the statute, it might seem self-evident that someone who believes that interpretation is wrong can appeal that interpretation in court and get a judgment on the merits.  On November 18, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said "not so fast." 

The decision is a valuable reminder that just because you might allege a wrong, you will not necesarily be entitled to a remedy.  The Ninth Circuit does a good job of making sure that the threshold question of standing must be answered satisfactorily before any other allegations in a complaint are reached.  When, as here, it finds it not satisfied, the case is over.

The case was Levine v. Vilsack, and it involved what seemed at first a straightforward issue of statutory interpretation.  The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 ("HMSA of 1958") is the bedrock federal statute dealing with the means of slaughter of livestock.  The key provision of the act, 7 U.S.C. Section 1902, provides as follows:

No method of slaughtering or handling in connection with slaughtering shall be deemed to comply with the public policy of the United States unless it is humane. Either of the following two methods of slaughtering and handling are hereby found to be humane:
        (a) in the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine,  and other livestock, all animals are rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut; or
        (b) by slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith . . . .

The simple question presented in Levine was whether the phrase bolded above, "and other livestock", included fowl.  Almost from the time the statute was first enacted, and most recently in 2005, the Secretary of Agriculture ruled that it did not.  Levine along with a host of other plaintiffs, including The Humane Society of the United States, sued to overturn this interpretation.

The district court dismissed the case, treating it as a relatively straightforward case of statutory interpretation and agency discretion.  The Ninth Circuit (perhaps wary of Justice Scalia’s well-known dislike of legislative history) took a different tack. 

The issue it confronted is in general known as standing.  It derives from Article III of the Constitution, which grants the judiciary the power to decide "cases" and "controversies."  The Ninth Circuit relied on a U.S. Supreme Court case called Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife and its own decision in Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance v. Gutierrez to apply a three-part test to the standing issue in Levine. 

(1) that plaintiffs had suffered an injury in fact that was concrete and particularized, and actual or imminent; (2) that the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct; and (3) that the injury was likely to be redressed by a favorable court decision

It was on the third of these tests, whether the alleged injury was likely to be redressed by a favorable court decision, that plaintiffs’ claims fell.

The problem lies in the statutory history of the HMSA of 1958 and a companion statute, the Federal Meat Inspection Act (the "FMIA").  Initially, the HMSA of 1958 had a enforcement provision in that the federal government was prohibited from buying meat that was not slaughtered in accordance with its terms.  However, in 1978, Congress passed a new Humane Methods of Slaughter Act ("HMSA of 1978"), which repealed that provision of  HMSA of 1958.  As part of HMSA of 1978, Congress also amended the FMIA (initially passed in 1907 in reaction to Upton Sinclar’s "The Jungle") to provide inspection requirements for slaughtering.  Essentially, those inspection requirements became the replacement enforcement mechanism for the HMSA of 1958.  But inspection requirements under the FMIA applied only to "cattle, sheep, swine, goats, horses, mules, and other equines."  Without the "other livestock" language of HMSA of 1958, there was no argument that the FMIA inspection requirement could conceivably apply to poultry.  However, in 2005, the FMIA was amended once again, deleting the specific list of animals and replacing it with the phrase "amenable species."  As the court noted,

Amenable species was defined to include “those species subject to the provisions of this chapter on the day before November 10, 2005" as well as "any additional species of livestock that the Secretary considers appropriate."

Plaintiffs ultimate difficulty, the one they could not overcome, was that they sued for an interpretation under HMSA of 1958, and not to require or overturn agency action interpreting the phrase "amenable species" under the FMIA.  As a result, regardless of the harms they claimed and regardless of the proper interpretation of "other livestock" under HMSA of 1958, there was no remedy the court could order for them based on the actual claims in their complaint.

The plaintiffs tried a lot of arguments to avoid this result.  In a footnote (it’s footnote 8 that continues over pages 15456-67 of the case), the court deals with the plaintiffs’ argument that "if she prevailed, ‘the number of chickens and other birds slaughtered inhumanely will be reduced, thus decreasing her risk of contracting food-borne illness . . . .’”  The court points to other statutes that allow federal inspectors to reduce food-borne illness in poultry slaughterhouses.   But it returns to the main point, which is that it has no power to order the Secretary to make a ruling under one statute when the complaint asks for relief under a different statute. 

In federal court, standing is the gatekeeper of issues.  Without standing under Article III, without being a party that has a real case or controversy in accordance with precedent, no case can proceed.  In Levine, the plaintiffs tried unsuccessfully to straddle the gap between two statutes, as to one of which it claimed an incorrect agency interpretation, but under the other of which it would have had to look for relief.  It was right of the Ninth Circuit not to give it a helping hand out of that gap.