Thursday, April 29, 2010

United States v. Stevens: A Half-Full, Not Half-Empty Decision

Last week the Supreme Court of the United States, by a vote of 8-1, held unconstitutional the federal statute criminalizing creation, possession or sale of material depicting cruelty to animals.

ISAR had submitted an amicus curiae ("friend-of-the-Court") brief in the case and our Chairman, Professor Henry Mark Holzer, presented two audio commentaries about it--one after our brief was filed and the other following oral argument.

Although the case, and the issue which remains unsettled, was of obvious importance to the animal protection movement, so too did it implicate the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

Exceptions to that guarantee--defamation, "fighting words," hard-core pornography--are rare, yet the Court was being asked to create another one by upholding the suppression of the speech that the challenged statute criminalized: depictions of cruelty to animals.

In declining to create that exception, the Supreme Court did not rule that government--Congress or the states--lacked a substantial (the lawyerly term is "compelling") interest in illegalizing depictions of animal abuse. The "compelling interest" issue was raised in the Stevens case, and the Court could have decided it--but despite being invited to, it didn't. (Although in his dissent, Justice Alito stated unequivocally that the federal government did have a compelling interest in preventing the conduct that the statute was aimed at.)

Instead, the Court's eight member majority ruled that the statute was "overbroad," meaning that the law could be interpreted to suppress speech of activities which, though distasteful to many (like hunting), were perfectly legal. In other words, the Court objected to the potential broad sweep of the statute, not its intention to protect animals from certain forms of unquestionable cruelty by suppressing depictions of that cruelty.

Already legislation has been introduced in Congress to comport with the Court's invitation that the legislature craft a statute narrowly reflecting its substantial interest in curbing cruelty to animals--a law which is not overbroad and targeted more specifically to the goal that all members of the Court share: ending the scourge of crush videos and dog fighting by suppressing the depiction.

ISAR will stay on top of developments and provide ongoing commentary.

Welcome News

ISAR's accountants have recently provided us with our organization 2009 certified financial statement and tax return. We're pleased to report that although 2009 contributions to ISAR have fallen below our expectations, a problem most not-for-profits have suffered from during the past few years, the shortfall was considerably less than we had anticipated and planned for. ISAR remains on a sound financial footing, and with the continued support of those who understand what we're doing to ease the suffering of animals we'll stay the course. (Accordingly, it will no longer be necessary for us to charge even a modest fee for the materials we provide.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Mandatory Spay/Neuter Beat Goes On

As ISAR's supporters know, our organization has been in the forefront of a "take no prisoners" approach to mandatory spay/neuter--meaning that we have staked out a position that there are to be virtually no exceptions, including and especially for breeders.

To that end, we have prepared a lengthy monograph on the subject, which includes our Model Mandatory Spay/Neuter Statute. ISAR's approach to the overpopulation problem is spreading through the animal protection movement and into the general culture.

For example, a Florida participant in ISAR’s 2008 Homeless Animals’ Day has informed us that: “Just so you know, I copied the great model spay/neuter statute you wrote about in your blog and forwarded it to all Florida state senators. I’ll do the same with the state representatives tomorrow.” The Executive Director of Animal Law Coalition has requested “permission to reprint this wonderful monograph”—which ISAR gratefully granted.

ISAR has had offers to translate our Model Mandatory Spay/Neuter Statute into Russian and Albanian, and we're seeking volunteers to translate it into other languages. As the translations become available, they will be posted on our website and made available to spay/neuter advocates in the appropriate countries.

We mention this now because California Independent Voter Network on April 15, 2010 published an important article by Greg Lucas entitled "Californians rabid about sterilizing cats and dogs."

Mr. Lucas writes:

The most heated debate in Sacramento during the past two years hasn’t been budget cuts depriving poor children of health care or awarding billion-dollar tax breaks to corporations. It hasn’t even been California’s massive multi-billion dollar budget shortfalls.

Generating far more public outcry is the mandatory spaying and neutering of cats and dogs.

In 2008, unsuccessful spay/neuter legislation logged some 32,000 letters and e-mails either in support or opposition -- many thousands more than generated by the contents of the state budget, the most significant public policy action taken each year by the Legislature and the governor.

The almost rabid interest in the issue stems in part from the fact that many state policy issues, like the budget or foster care, are abstract. But altering a family pet – or a prize breeder – is very personal. “People care desperately about their pets. They view them as family members,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University Sacramento. “Unlike the budget, this is tangible, it's real, it's part of people’s inner circle. So mandating that you spay or neuter a family member gores people’s ox. And they really hate government anyway so this is just another outrage in their minds.”

Were the current spay and neuter bill pending in the state Assembly to pass – and be signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – California would be the first state in the nation with such a requirement. Several cities and counties including Los Angeles, Sacramento, Riverside and Santa Cruz already require sterilization, however.

Spaying and neutering reduces the number of animals that must be euthanized. Advocates of mandatory sterilization say it would reduce even further the number of unplanned, unwanted cats and dogs. Doing so would reduce the strain on overcrowded shelters allowing them to keep animals longer instead of killing them for lack of space.

Sen. Dean Florez, a Shafter Democrat, says he introduced his spay and neuter bill, SB 250, in part to address pet overpopulation but also to reduce government spending. “State and local governments spend and have spent millions of precious taxpayer dollars on the care and feeding of unwanted animals – and, unfortunately, ultimately the destruction of too many animals,” Florez said.

Opponents, which include breeders, offer a number of arguments against mandatory sterilization, starting with violation of the 14th Amendment prohibition on states depriving any person of “life, liberty or property without due process of law.” Other opposing arguments include difficulty of enforcement and the added animal control costs of trying to enforce the law. Others contend fewer pets will be licensed or vaccinated out of fear it will be discovered the animal isn’t sterilized and the owner will be fined.

Previous spay and neuter legislation in California hasn’t been successful for various reasons. A measure introduced in 2008 began as a blanket requirement for sterilization but then so many exemptions were added to mollify opposition, it became, as one lawmaker said, “Swiss Cheese,” and ultimately failed passage.

Florez’s legislation requires cats and dogs be spayed or neutered before they are six months old. But he took a different tack than previous legislation. “I don't believe in a blanket spay or neutering requirement. But I do believe there is a problem that needs to be addressed. I told the spay and neutering advocates I was interested in a different approach and if they had one that made sense, a successful model, then I would be willing to work on this issue,” Florez.

They brought him the spay and neuter ordinance from Santa Cruz County. Passed in 1995, it was the first such ordinance in the state. Lake and Stanislaus counties followed suit, as did Los Angeles County, which passed a similar law in February 2008.

Like Florez’s bill, the Santa Cruz ordinance requires dogs and cats be fixed by six months of age. But there are exemptions: guide dogs, police dogs, herding dogs, search and rescue. Breeding these types of dogs is allowed. Old animals or ones with health issues are also exempted.

The Santa Cruz ordinance allows for the sale of an “unaltered certificate” which permits one litter per year for a single dog or cat. The certificate imposes various conditions on the owner such as veterinary care and a minimum age when the animals can be sold. Supporters say the ordinance has succeeded.

Before 1995, Santa Cruz’s shelter held 14,000 animals a year, down to 5,500 12 years later, according to a June 9, 2007 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Euthanasia dropped from 30 percent to 17 percent of sheltered dogs and from 60 to 50 percent of sheltered cats, the article reported.

Critics say the euthanasia rates in the county are the same as those around the state, that fewer owners license their dogs and animal control costs have doubled.

“All along I've tried to keep the focus on the issue of licensing and roaming dogs,” Florez said. “In a nutshell, if your dog is unlicensed and unaltered and is impounded, then you must have it fixed as a condition of return.” Florez likens that to existing state law – freeing an impounded animal is akin to adopting a new one, which requires sterilization.

“Let’s put it this way, if you have an unaltered, unlicensed animal in your yard, not causing trouble and not roaming – this bill will not affect you. If you have a unaltered but licensed animal roaming around or causing other problems –- then, yes, this bill will affect you.”

No state in the country has a mandatory spay or neuter law, although measures have been introduced in Alabama and Massachusetts. Both are still pending. The closest to one is Rhode Island which requires all cats be sterilized unless the owner has a breeding permit or the owner has agreed to spay and neuter the cat after adopting it from a shelter or animal welfare agency.

Thirty states, however, require sterilization or a promise to sterilize a pet adopted from a shelter, pound or pet rescue organization. Among them are California, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Nevada, New York, Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Colorado, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

Las Vegas adopted an ordinance in November requiring most pet owners to sterilize their cats or dogs by four months of age. Dallas’ ordinance requires spaying and neutering but not until the animals are six months of age. Service dogs and purebred cats and dogs are among the exemptions.

In Lawton Oklahoma, owners of pet stores are fined if they sell an unaltered pet. Like Florez’s measure, in Tacoma Washington, an animal running loose must be spayed or neutered.

Other states have created funds to subsidize the costs of spaying and neutering. Legislation is pending in West Virginia to place a $75 registration fee on bulk pet food with $25 deposited into a Spay Neuter Assistance Fund. A $50 registration fee would be levied against commercial feed of which $10 would go into the fund.

Legislation in New York, introduced in 2009 but lying dormant in the Legislature, would grant a tax credit capped at $200 for the costs of spaying or neutering pets.

As for Florez’s legislation, he’s not sure when he will bring it to a vote in the 80-member Assembly, which narrowly passed the last sterilization bill on a 41-37 vote. “I’m prepared to work with all parties to win enough votes to get this measure to the governor's desk.”

ISAR predicts that by the time the Florez bill is sliced and diced in the various legislative committees and diluted by the breeders and other anti-spay/neuter forces, it will be simply a rehashed version of the 2008 unsuccessful legislation.

ISAR opposed that legislation for reasons we have made very clear, and if the Florez bill is a reprise of the earlier bill we will oppose it too. Our reasons, and our alternative is found HERE.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Stevens Decision: Speech 8, Animals 1

To the disappointment of ISAR and many others, the Supreme Court by a vote of 8-1 has just ruled unconstitutional the federal statute criminalizing the creation, possession or sale of depictions of animal cruelty. As our supporters know, ISAR submitted an amicus curiae brief in the Stevens case and our chairman, Professor Henry Mark Holzer, provided two commentaries on the case while it was pending.

Next week, Professor Holzer will analyze the Court's opinion in a commentary to be posted on ISAR'S website.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Animal Lawyers and Animal Law

As ISAR's supporters know, the field of animal law began largely through the efforts of our chairman, Professor Henry Mark Holzer. Since that beginning, the interest of lawyers, law schools and the legal profession in animal law has burgeoned. (See ISAR's Blogs Important New Publication: Stanford Journal of Animal Law and Policy and Websites Providing Information About Animal Law.)

Among the many exciting developments is that the American Bar Association and state, city, and local bar associations have not only created animal law committees, but have started to perform two other valuable services. Many bar associations provide lawyer referral services, through which non-lawyers can find attorneys proficient in animal law. Perhaps more important, more and more bar associations publish useful information about animal law. For example, The New York State Bar Association has developed a pamphlet which summarizes New York animal law and covers both companion and farm animal.

Hence, one of the first stops for those wanting to find an animal law attorney, and learn something about animal law, is the nearest bar association.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Las Vegas spay/neuter ordinance: Two steps forward, one step backward

A few months ago the Nevada city of Las Vegas enacted a "mandatory" spay/neuter law. It requires that dogs and cats over the age of four months, "harbored" in the city, be sterilized (as well as being microchipped before adoption or release from impound). In principle, the city's motive (reducing overpopulation and killing) is commendable and ISAR supports it. The ordinance is an explicit acknowledgement of the overpopulation problem, and an attempt to deal with it in a humane and practical way. Indeed, the Las Vegas ordinance reflects some of the provisions originally propounded by ISAR in its Monograph entitled "The Policy, Law and Morality of Mandatory Spay/Neuter" and our "Model Statute Regarding Dog Breeding, Facilitation and Sales," each of which are available for purchase on ISAR's website HERE).

However, the Las Vegas ordinance contains the same Achilles Heel found in virtually every other so-called "mandatory" spay/neuter law: a categorical exemption for those "holding a valid dog fancier's permit, cat fancier's permit, breeder's permit, or professional animal handler's permit . . . ." As ISAR explains at length in our Monograph and our Model Statute, exemptions in so-called "mandatory" spay/neuter laws, especially for breeders, gut those enactments and do little to reduce the overpopulation problem.

As our Monograph and Model Statute prove, a (if not the) major culprit in the overpopulation problem is the breeder, especially the commercial manufacturers of puppies and kittens who operate "farms" at which these unfortunate animals are produced like sausages on an assembly line.

Obviously, as usual with "mandatory" spay/neuter laws, the Las Vegas ordinance was the product of compromise--unfortunately a typical ingredient of the legislative process. Until compromise at the expense of animals is wrung out of the system at the insistence of voters, we will continue to get laws which are "mandatory" except when they are not.

The animal rights movement, let alone the animals we seek to protect, can no longer take a step backward, even if at the same time we take two steps forward.