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Reporter: Tom Ramstack

The Supreme Court’s justices seemed ready to overturn a California law intended to protect livestock from abuse after arguments by lawyers Wednesday.

The dispute focuses on whether pigs should be euthanized when they are sick or injured at factory farms or merely inspected to ensure their meat will not contaminate humans who eat it.

A 2008 California law says “downer” livestock cannot be commercially slaughtered for their meat.

A federal law says they still could be slaughtered for commercial purposes if there is no risk of human contamination.

“When the federal law says you can, that pre-empts the rule from the states that says you can’t,” Chief Justice John Roberts said during the hearing Wednesday.

Justice Stephen Breyer told a lawyer for the state of California, “Your law seems an additional requirement in respect to the operations of a federally inspected meatpacking facility.”

The decision on whether state or federal law prevails in the case could translate to millions of dollars for livestock farmers.

The National Meat Association is backing the Federal Meat Inspection Act while the Humane Society of the United States supports the California law.

The Obama administration is siding with the National Meat Association.

“If enforced,” the California law “would have a significant potential to create confusion and confrontation between those federal inspectors and state officials,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. argued in a legal brief.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also supports the meat industry’s position.

“The Chamber … is keenly interested in ensuring that the regulatory environment in which its members operate is a consistent one,” attorney Kenneth Geller argued in a legal brief on behalf of the Chamber.

California’s attorneys say their state law regulating the treatment of livestock is nothing new. State laws setting standards for animal treatment date to the earliest days of U.S. history, the say.

The California law resulted from disclosures of animal abuse at a factory farm in San Bernardino County in January 2008.

The Humane Society of the United States released undercover video of brutal treatment of cattle at the Hallmark Meat Packing Co. and the Westland Meat Co. Inc.

The video showed sick and injured cows who were unable to stand being kicked, electrocuted, dragged with chains and rammed with forklifts.

The revelations prompted the largest meat recall in American history.

President Barack Obama responded by issuing an order in 2009 that forbids “downer” cattle from being slaughtered for their meat.

However, the federal ban did not cover pigs and other livestock.

California’s ban applied to all animals slaughtered for meat.

The National Meat Association sued in U.S. District Court to stop California from enforcing its ban against slaughters of pigs, arguing the state law was preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

Initially, the National Meat Association won.

Fresno, Calif.-based U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill ruled the state overstepped its authority.

However, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed the ruling.

“Hogwash,” wrote Chief Judge Alex Kozinski in a 3-0 decision that sided with California.

“The [Federal Meat Inspection Act] establishes inspection procedures to ensure that animals that are slaughtered are safe for human consumption, but this doesn’t preclude states from banning the slaughter of certain kinds of animals altogether,” the decision says. “Federal law regulates the meat inspection process; states are free to decide which animals may be turned into meat.”

In addition to the rhetoric about whether federal law or state law prevails, the case is drumming up heated opinions about cruelty to animals.

Carter Dillard, litigation director for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, wrote in a recent Internet posting for his nonprofit group that, “A law that bans the sale, transport or purchase of sick and disabled ‘downer’ animals — living, feeling beings — who are so weak they are unable to walk, is the bare minimum we can do to be humane.”

He was skeptical of National Meat Association claims that factory farmers and slaughterhouses try to treat livestock humanely.

“The obvious truth is that they love the money these animals represent, and it is time they simply admitted as much,” he wrote.

A ruling by the Supreme Court is expected within months. The case is National Meat Association v. Harris, No. 10-224.

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