BOISE — The state of Idaho will pay some of the legal fees of an animal rights group that sued to overturn a law banning secret taping at agricultural facilities.
The Constitutional Defense Council, which consists of the attorney general, governor, speaker of the House and Senate president pro tempore, voted unanimously Wednesday to pay $260,000 to cover the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s legal fees.
The group sued the state on First Amendment grounds to overturn the 2014 law, called an “ag gag” law by its opponents and passed after an animal rights group released videos of workers abusing cows at a dairy in the Magic Valley. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately upheld two provisions of the law that criminalize obtaining employment or records at a farm by deceit, force or threat, but struck down the rest.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill had originally awarded the Animal Legal Defense Fund almost $250,000 in attorney’s fees after his initial ruling striking down the law, said Steven Olsen, chief of civil litigation in the attorney general’s office. He said the group incurred more than $70,000 in legal expenses during the appeal to the Ninth Circuit, and the attorney general’s office negotiated a $260,000 settlement to take care of all the costs.
“I felt and the attorney general felt that was a reasonable amount given the circumstances of the case,” he said.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, questioned Olsen about the role statements made by lawmakers during the debate leading up to the bill’s passage played in weakening the state’s case.
“We believe that was not legally appropriate, but nevertheless it was considered by the U.S. District Court,” Olsen said.
Both Winmill’s initial ruling and the final one from the Ninth Circuit discuss the bill’s history, the legislative debate and select quotes from lawmakers who backed the bill, and Winmill cited this as evidence that the intent was to protect farmers by suppressing critical speech.
“Many legislators made their intent crystal clear by comparing animal rights activists to terrorists, persecutors, vigilantes, blackmailers, and invading marauders who swarm into foreign territory and destroy crops to starve foes into submission,” Winmill wrote in his August 2015 order. “Other legislators accused animal rights groups of being extreme activists who contrive issues solely to bring in donations or to purposely defame agricultural facilities.”
Bedke said after the meeting that when lawmakers debate something, it becomes part of the official record and can be used in court.
“I think (this is) something we all need to be aware of,” he said.