The court system is generally the refuge of last resort. But that seems to be where the cattle industry is headed once again on at least a couple of fronts.
• After the attempts to destroy the checkoff from within failed, Mike Callicrate and the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) teamed up with the Humane Society of the U.S. a few weeks ago to try to get the job done judicially.
• The World Trade Organization (WTO) essentially sided with Canada, Mexico and others earlier this year in ruling that the U.S. mandatory country-of-origin-labeling (mCOOL) law wasn't valid. R-CALF turned to the courts this week, announcing it has aligned with the Made in the USA Foundation to sue WTO, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and the U.S. Trade Representative. The gist of the lawsuit seems to be that the WTO doesn't have a right to override a U.S. law.
Of course, the basis of WTO is that trading partners – in hopes of establishing a level playing field on the trade front – agree to abide by a common set of rules and an international referee on disputes. Obviously, with hundreds of billions of dollars in trade at stake, the U.S. isn't about to withdraw from the WTO. Nor would there be an iota of political support to do so.
Another Perspective: WTO Rules Against U.S. COOL Rule; Now What?
The historical record of the U.S. cattle industry going to court to achieve policy aims hasn't been very good. A case in point are the events that led to the founding of R-CALF. Back in those days, with widespread concern among cattlemen about the number of Canadian cattle coming into the U.S., there was a push to sue Canada under the anti-dumping laws. The membership of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) actually supported such action until its legal counsel informed them it would cost more than $1 million to bring the suit, with the chances of success being less than 1%.
Based on that advice, NCBA decided not to get involved, but R-CALF decided to go ahead. The lawsuit actually ended up costing more than the lawyers had estimated, but the prediction was accurate – the suit failed.
This R-CALF lawsuit isn't expected to be as involved as the Canadian dumping action, and any victory largely would be symbolic. Proponents of the action hope it will raise concerns over America’s involvement in the WTO, and there are good reasons to have issues with WTO involvement. The program has fallen short of achieving what it was intended to do in pretty significant ways. Yet, WTO involvement is a lot like farm subsidies; you may not agree with them but reversing the course would wreak havoc.
From R-CALF's perspective, this lawsuit shouldn’t cost a tremendous amount and hopefully will demonstrate to its membership that it continues to fight for their positions on the issues, regardless of the outcome. Of course, the beautiful thing about the court system is that if one finds the right district judge/judges, it's possible to win a temporary victory as the case winds its way through the process.
The bottom line is that the U.S. did cede some of its authority and sovereignty when it joined the WTO, and it could regain it by opting out of the WTO. But that simply isn't in the cards right now. What's more, the courts have made it clear that the U.S. government has the right to enter into trade agreements; the courts aren't likely to reverse these longstanding interpretations.