The fate of the checkoff is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. A date has been set for December 8, 2004 for the court to begin to hear oral arguments and is expected to issue a decision early next year.
Constitutional law expert Laurence H. Tribe will argue the case. Tribe prevailed in a 2001 Supreme Court decision striking down the mushroom checkoff, which opponents to the checkoff say is nearly identical to the beef checkoff.
On Friday, the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), Livestock Marketing Association (LMA), and several individuals filed a "friend of the court brief" opposing the beef checkoff program. In its brief, WORC argues the beef checkoff violates ranchersâ€™ right to free speech by forcing them to pay for speech with which they do not agree.
In a separate friend of the court filing, the Campaign for Family Farms joined 49 other agricultural groups to urge the high court to end the beef checkoff and similar checkoffs for pork, dairy, and other commodities. Other supporters included the National Farmers Union, Dakota Resource Council, Dakota Rural Action, Idaho Rural Council, Northern Plains Resource Council, Powder River Basin Resource Council, and Western Colorado Congress. The Campaign for Family Farms has led successful challenges to the pork checkoff.
WORC estimated ranchers have paid about $168.6 million in beef checkoff assessments since a lower court ruled in June 2002 that the program was unconstitutional. "Ranchers could have found a better use of their money," says Mabel Dobbs, a rancher from Weiser, Idaho, and Chair of the WORC Livestock Team.
In December 2000, WORC and LMA sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 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 producersâ€™ First Amendment rights by compelling them to pay for speech with which they disagreed.
In July 2003, the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Kornmannâ€™s decision. In October, the full Eight Circuit denied a petition for rehearing. In February 2004, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to review the decision; in May, the Court agreed.