The Humane Society of the United States and several of its individual members involved in the Tennessee walking horse industry, together with Humane Society Legislative Fund, have prevailed in a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that challenged the United States Department of Agriculture’s withdrawal of a 2017 horse protection rule after the rule had been finalized and released. The D.C. Circuit held that the Obama-era rule was improperly withdrawn by the agency.
In the last weeks of the Obama administration, the USDA finalized and announced a rule to upgrade its regulations under the Horse Protection Act of 1970. The rule contains major changes to protect Tennessee walking and racking horse breeds from the cruel practice of “soring,” including a ban on the use of medieval platform shoes (“stacks”), chains and other cruel devices and practices intended to cause pain and force horses to step higher in an exaggerated showring gait known as the “Big Lick.” The rule would also eliminate the current industry inspection program that places people with an incentive to perpetuate soring in charge of enforcing the law. The rule would abolish the failed industry self-policing system—as recommended in 2010 by the USDA’s Inspector General—and put in its place a network of independent, third-party inspectors licensed, trained and overseen by the USDA.
The Obama administration announced and posted in a press release the final rule and submitted it to the Office of the Federal Register prior to the change in administrations. That Office then posted the final rule for public inspection, but failed to publish the rule in the Federal Register before then-President Donald Trump took office. The incoming administration then withdrew the rule without explanation. The plaintiffs sued the USDA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that the rule’s withdrawal violated the procedures agencies must follow under federal administrative law. The District Court sided with the agency and dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit. But on appeal, the D.C. Circuit reversed and held that the USDA violated federal law by withdrawing the rule without notice and comment; the appellate court remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings.
“This D.C. Circuit decision is a long-overdue victory for Tennessee walking horses and those who have fought for robust enforcement of federal prohibitions on horse soring for many years,” said Ralph Henry, senior director of litigation for the Humane Society of the United States. “The 2017 Horse Protection Act Rule is a crucial step toward eradicating the terrible and widespread abuse of horses by this faction of the industry. We are gratified that the agency’s unreasoned attempt to withdraw these regulations has been firmly rebuked in a court of law.”
“The Horse Protection Act made the public exhibition, showing or sale of horses victimized by soring illegal upon its passage in 1970, but since then a segment of the industry has flouted the law and continued the practice, exploiting loopholes in the underlying regulations,” said Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. “These loopholes must be closed and the purpose of the Act—to end soring—finally effectuated.”
The plaintiffs are represented pro bono by Latham & Watkins LLP and by counsel in the HSUS Animal Protection Law department.
- Erica Heffner