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Carter: GMO Labeling Laws

Several weeks ago the Federal Court handed down her decision on the Grocery Manufacturer Association's challenge to Vermont's first in the nation GMO labeling law. While neither side can declare outright victory, the Court's lengthy 85-page order gives the State of Vermont much to be happy about.
On the one hand, the Court did allow several of the GMA's constitutional arguments to move forward. However, it also dismissed many of the trade group's arguments and appeared to side with Vermont's position that the law is subject to the lowest level of judicial scrutiny - what constitutional lawyers call "rational basis."

Under that legal standard, the GMO labeling law is constitutional if the law is rationally related to Vermont's legitimate interest in protecting and informing consumers about what's in their food. This is a standard I think Vermont can meet. Perhaps even more importantly, the court denied the GMA's request for an injunction that would have stopped the law from going into effect. Functionally, that means Vermont can move forward as planned with the heart of the law's GMO labeling requirements intact.

The State is not out of the woods yet though. Last week, the GMA filed its notice of appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals asking that the Appeals Court reverse much of what the lower court decided. So, while Vermont can claim a measure of victory in round one, the fate of the law now lies with the Court of Appeals in New York - and ultimately, perhaps even with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Reading the legal tea leaves and trying to predict where this case goes is a bit of an exercise in futility. The U.S. Supreme Court generally receives about ten-thousand appeals per year but only hears and decides about 75 of those cases. But, since Vermont's GMO labeling law is a first in the nation, and because it is a politically charged legal issue that impacts the constitution and many states, the likelihood of this case ending up at the U.S. Supreme Court is significant.

The appeals courts are not bound by, and owe no deference to, the lower court legal decisions. But, the fact that the District Court's well reasoned and thorough decision found in favor of Vermont on so many of the legal issues should give the state a renewed sense of confidence moving into the upcoming appeal. In the meantime, we can expect Vermont to continue on the planned path of enforcing the first GMO labeling law in the United States.

Jared Carter teaches legal activism, legal writing and appellate advocacy at Vermont Law School. He also directs the Vermont Community Law Center, a non-profit legal services organization focused on social justice, constitutional rights and consumer protection.
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