Animals

A Look at 2022’s Biggest Moments for Animals in Court


As the year wraps up, One Green Planet is looking back at 2022’s biggest moments for animals in court.  Among the high-highs and low-lows, two themes emerged: (1) animal law is becoming more mainstream, less taboo, and more successful; and (2) despite this progress, the law is still quite limited as a resource for helping animals, and legal efforts to support activism remain at the core of the animal law movement.  With these themes in mind, here are some of 2022’s animal law highlights:

1. Rural Utah Jury Acquits Animal Activists (October 2022)

In a year that animal law came before the U.S. Supreme Court, the New York Court of Appeals, and federal appellate courts around the country, a small criminal trial in St. George, Utah stole the spotlight.

The trial stemmed from events in 2017 when DxE activists rescued two small piglets from the floor of a Smithfield facility.  Utah’s prosecutors leveled heavy charges against the activists—including felony burglary charges—for “stealing” Smithfield’s “property.”   But in 2022, when the case went to trial, a jury refused to convict them of any crimes.

Source: Direct Action Everywhere – DxE/YouTube

To be clear—despite some inaccurate press reports—this verdict did not set a legal precedent that will impact the rights of activists in future cases.  What the verdict did accomplish, however, is bigger than legal precedent.  The acquittal sent waves through national media outlets, all anxious to spread the news that in Utah—where Smithfield runs major operations—a jury sided with vegan activists.  Accordingly, the case drew widespread attention to animal suffering at facilities like Smithfield’s.  It also forced the public to confront uncomfortable questions about animal agribusiness and our legal system:  Is rescuing two small animals, who are on the verge of death, really the same as robbing a bank?  Does it warrant 10 years in prison?  Can prosecuting these rescuers be a good use of government resources? And isn’t it ironic to consider Smithfield—a corporate conglomerate—a “victim” under the law, while the animals it tortures are considered property?

The jury may or may not have wrestled with all these questions.  But in acquitting the activists, it sent a message that saving animals should not—and need not—be considered a crime, but rather an act of compassion.

2. Animal Welfare Takes Center Stage at Nation’s Highest Court (August 2022)

As many readers will know, in October 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court heard an oral argument about the constitutionality of Prop 12—a California law that prevents the sale of pork, in California, if it comes from facilities that confine mother pigs in gestation crates. The pork industry challenged the law, arguing that it improperly regulates how pork producers raise pigs outside of California.  California—supported by animal-protection organizations—responded that it is simply protecting the health and moral values of its citizens and that any effects outside the state are incidental and acceptable.

The Prop 12 case is one of the biggest animal law cases of 2022—if for no other reason than its posture before the Supreme Court brings eyes to animal suffering.  In addition, the case will determine if states will be free to pass strong animal protection laws in the future, or if the Court will erect a major hurdle to states’ prerogatives.

But it’s important to keep in mind that Prop 12, even if upheld, will hardly be the holy grail for saving animals.  Gestation crates are torture chambers—but with or without them, raising and slaughtering pigs is cruel.  Welfare reforms, even at their best, will only ever be limited remedies for farmed animals.

The takeaway? We’re all cheering for Prop 12, and animal law in the Supreme Court is exciting.  But Prop 12 can’t be our final aspiration.

3. Fight for Animal Rights Comes up Short in New York’s Highest Court (May 2022)

One of the most exciting cases of 2022 was the Non-Human Rights Project’s (NHRP) petition to release Happy, an elephant, from the Bronx Zoo.  The NHRP has brought many cases arguing that animals, like Happy, have a legal right to bodily liberty—and using this legal theory, NHRP challenged Happy’s isolated confinement.  Happy’s case was unique, however, because it reached the highest court in New York, and with backing from some of the biggest names in constitutional legal scholarship.

But despite making waves (and despite a sound legal argument) the case came up short.  In a 5-2 decision, the New York Court of Appeals found that Happy did not have a legal right to petition for his freedom because he is not a “person” under the law.

A 5-2 decision (as opposed to 7-0) is a notable sign that at least some judges are taking animal rights claims seriously.  And only time will tell if, ultimately, this case—and NHRP’s legal theory—can advance animal rights.  But for 2022, Happy’s case serves as a painful reminder that our legal system still subjugates animals to humans’ desires—and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

4. Cruelty to Farmed Animals is Still a Crime (February 2022)

All states have some form of animal cruelty laws.  In large part, these cruelty laws apply, on their face, to all animals—including farmed animals.  Also in large part, there is a tacit assumption that law enforcement will not prosecute agricultural operations for their cruelty to farmed animals.

Animal Outlook has been challenging this assumption, pressing prosecutors to bring cruelty charges against agricultural businesses.  In 2022, the organization had a breakthrough.  When a Pennsylvania District Attorney refused to prosecute Martin Farms, despite hours of undercover footage exposing cruelty, Animal Outlook petitioned in court to force the prosecutor’s hand.  On appeal, the court did exactly that.

This successful case sends a strong message that animal cruelty laws do not only protect companion animals.  Farmed animals deserve the same protections.  Therefore, agricultural businesses can, and must, still be held accountable and prosecuted as criminals for mistreating animals in their facilities.

5. Animal Lawyers Continue Fighting Ag-Gag Laws

For years, animal lawyers have been fighting against Ag-Gag laws: laws that, in various forms, punish undercover investigators for filming inside agricultural facilities and thereby exposing inherently cruel practices.  This year, a coalition of public interest groups successfully challenged a new Ag-Gag law in Iowa.  A federal court held that, as with other Ag-Gag laws, the Iowa law “gagged” activist speech and therefore violated the First Amendment.

More Ag-Gag laws are sure to arise in coming years, and One Green Planet will track the ensuing legal challenges.

6. Animal Lawyers Continue Fighting Tag-Gag Laws

Tag-Gag laws, like Ag-Gag laws, aim to suppress the animal rights movement through censorship.  Whereas Ag-Gag laws seek to “gag” activists, Tag-Gag laws seek to gag plant-based food companies that sell vegan alternatives to animal products.  Most commonly, Tag-Gag laws prohibit companies from using words like “meat” and “milk”—words traditionally associated with animal products—on plant-based product labels and advertisements.  Tofurky and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, along with the Good Food Institute, Plant Based Foods Association, and the ACLU, have successfully challenged Tag-Gag laws in several states, arguing that these laws violate free speech rights under the First Amendment.  In 2022, as a result of Tofurky’s lawsuits, courts struck down Tag-Gag laws in both Louisiana and Arkansas.

That’s all for 2022!

One Green Planet will continue tracking legal updates in the coming year.  There are exciting cases on the horizon—and more to come as the field continues growing.  In the meantime, you can get up to date on all our animal law updates:

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