Michigan “Feral Pig” update, or “Why suing the government feels like a ‘Sisyphean task’”

Last April, we reported the sad and bizarre story of farmers in Michigan who were told that their barnyard pigs were “feral” and had to be destroyed.  According to a Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Invasive Species Order, pigs that display certain vague and contradictory characteristics—i.e. a straight tail or a curly tail—are feral and illegal to own.  As of April 1, 2012, any farmer still possessing one of these pigs could be subject to a felony conviction, two years in jail, and $20,000 in fines.  A handful of farmers, including air force veteran Mark Baker, refused to destroy their animals without a fight, and filed lawsuits challenging the Department’s Order.

Baker’s complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief for various statutory and constitutional violations.  The case is currently pending in state court, but in the meantime, Baker faces a new problem: he can’t find a way to legally slaughter his pigs that are ready to be sold.  If he can’t slaughter them, he can’t sell them; and if he can’t sell them, he can’t make enough money to feed the rest of his pigs until spring.  The USDA slaughterhouse he normally uses won’t take the pigs with a Michigan “feral” designation hanging over them.  Likewise, veterinarians are refusing to certify that the pigs are healthy, for fear that the state could revoke their veterinary licenses.  As a result, Baker is unable to move the pigs across state lines to other slaughterhouses.  In this video, he asks for “feed contributions” for his animals, so he can keep them alive.

Like King Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who was forced to push a giant boulder up a hill—only to have it roll back down again—throughout eternity, suing the government often feels like a difficult and endless task.  Even when a citizen plaintiff, like Mark Baker, has strong legal arguments, the playing field simply is not level.  Government defendants generally do not have to pay for their own legal defense; it is provided courtesy of the taxpayer.  As a result, government agents can—and often do—deploy various delay tactics in order to drag out litigation as long as possible.  By contrast, citizen plaintiffs rarely have the financial wherewithal to survive the months—or years—of delay.  While this ensures job security for public interest attorneys, it has serious ramifications for America’s legal system.

For one, it undermines people’s faith in the courts as an effective means of resolving disputes.  Why file a lawsuit if it will simply linger in the courts for years?  In addition, government delay makes it that much more difficult for Americans to hold their government to task.  The possibility that a government official may lose a lawsuit several years down the road—perhaps after he or she has changed departments or been promoted—lacks a strong deterrent effect.  That’s not to say that lawsuits aren’t valuable—they are immensely valuable in changing the law—but only that such “value” comes at a cost.  And that cost is all-too-often born by individuals who suffer for their choice to take the high road by challenging government overreach.  This New Year’s Eve, I’ll be raising my glass to all of my fellow Americans who, like Mark Baker, have chosen to fight government injustice one lawsuit at a time, despite the financial and personal costs.  Many thanks and cheers to you.