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Mississippi Poultry Association Inc. v. Madigan

decided as corrected: May 28, 1993.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. D.C. DOCKET NUMBER CA-J91-0086(W). JUDGE Henry T. Wingate

Before Reavley, King, and Wiener, Circuit Judges.

Author: Wiener

WIENER, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from the district court's grant of summary judgment rejecting the Secretary of Agriculture's interpretation of a critical inspection standard contained in the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA).*fn1 Like Pertelote, we heed Chanticleer's*fn2 clarion call to resolve the central issue of this most recent in a long and illustrious line of gallinaceous litigation:*fn3 whether the interpretation of poultry importation standards by the Defendant-Appellant Secretary of Agriculture (the Secretary) is entitled to deference under Chevron USA v. Natural Resources Defense Council.*fn4 Finding the language employed by Congress both clear and unambiguous, we conclude not only that we owe no such deference to the Secretary's interpretation, but also that his interpretation is unsupportable under the plain language of the statute.



At issue in this appeal is the interpretation of § 466(d) of the PPIA*fn5 and the implementing regulation promulgated jointly by the Secretary and the Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) (collectively, "the Agency"). Section 466(d) provides that all imported poultry products

shall . . . be subject to the same inspection, sanitary, quality, species verification, and the residue standards applied to products produced in the United States; and . . . have been processed in facilities and under conditions that are the same as those under which similar products are processed in the United States.*fn6

The Agency promulgated a regulation interpreting the foregoing statutory language as requiring that "the foreign inspection system must maintain a program to assure that the requirements referred to in this section, at least equal to those applicable to the Federal System in the United States, are being met."*fn7

During the required notice and comment period, the FSIS received thirty-one comments on the proposed rule, more than 75% of which opposed the "at least equal to" language. Nonetheless, in the preamble to the final rule, the FSIS stated that it did not believe that a literal application of the term "the same as" was the intent of Congress, although the FSIS acknowledged that "there are certain features that any system must have to be considered 'the same as' the American system."*fn8

Congress reacted to the effrontery of the "at least equal to" language in the regulation by enacting § 2507 of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (1990 Farm Bill).*fn9 In that section, Congress addressed the Agency's interpretation, stating that "the regulation promulgated by the Secretary of Agriculture, through the [FSIS], with respect to poultry products offered for importation into the United States does not reflect the intention of the Congress."*fn10 It then "urges" the Secretary, through the FSIS, to amend the regulation to reflect the true legislative intent.*fn11 Further, in the House Conference Report accompanying the 1990 Farm Bill, Congress declares that although certain technical deviations from United States standards, such as dye color and materials used for knives, may be acceptable, the "fundamental inspection system, intensity, procedures, and food safety standards, . . . should be the same as those prevalent in the United States for any such country to be certified for export to the United States."*fn12 The Agency resisted Congress' expressed wishes, however, and the regulation remained unchanged.

Recognizing the impasse between the Legislative and Executive branches, the Mississippi Poultry Association, Inc. and the National Broiler Council (the Associations), both non-profit trade associations whose members are domestic poultry producers and processors, involved the third branch of government when they filed suit in the Southern District of Mississippi. There the Associations sought a judicial declaration that the 1989 regulation implementing § 466(d) was arbitrary and capricious as contemplated by the Administrative Procedure Act.*fn13

The Associations and the Agency filed cross motions for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion in favor of the Associations, concluding that the regulation's requirement that foreign poultry products be subject to procedures "at least equal" to United States procedures violated the plain language of the statute, which required that procedures for foreign poultry products be "the same as" requirements imposed on domestic poultry. Finding that the "the same as" language was unambiguous, the court declined to give deference to the Agency's interpretation of the statute. In addition to the statutory language, the court stressed that the subsequent statement of Congress in the 1990 Farm Bill was an unequivocal rejection of the Agency's interpretation of § 466(d). The Agency timely appealed.



A. Standard of Review

Our readership should now know by memory that we review the grant of a summary judgment motion "under the same standards which guided the district court."*fn14 The standards provide that summary judgment is appropriate when no issue of material fact exists and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.*fn15 In determining whether the grant was proper, we view all fact questions in the light most favorable to the nonmovant; questions of law are reviewed de novo.*fn16

B. Chevron Analysis

In Chevron, the Supreme Court established a two-step method for judicial review of an agency's interpretation of a statute that it administers.*fn17 The threshold inquiry in a Chevron analysis is whether Congress clearly expressed its intent in the plain language of the statute. "If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the Court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress."*fn18 The first step in determining the intent of Congress is to examine the language of the statute.*fn19 For, if the language is unambiguous on its face, "then the first canon is also the last: 'judicial inquiry is complete.'"*fn20 In deciding whether the intent of Congress is clear, courts are to employ the traditional rules of statutory construction.*fn21

If, but only if, the language of the statute is determined to be either ambiguous or silent on the particular issue, the reviewing court is to proceed to the second Chevron inquiry: "whether the agency's answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute."*fn22 As long as the agency's interpretation is reasonable, the court should defer to that interpretation and not impose its own construction on the statute.*fn23

1. Congressional Intent

The Associations insist that the language of the statute is clear in the context of the PPIA: Congress intended that foreign poultry products be subject to inspection standards identical to those imposed on like domestic products. In support of the portion of its argument which urges that the context of the statute controls, the Associations cite the rule that "specific words within a statute may not be read in isolation from the remainder of the entire statutory scheme."*fn24 "Words are not pebbles in alien juxtaposition; they have only a communal existence; and not only does the meaning of each interpenetrate the other, but all their aggregate take their purport from the setting in which they are used . . . ."*fn25

To illustrate this latter point, the Associations refer to other sections of the PPIA, in which the words "the same" mean "identical."*fn26 As the Associations note, another established canon of construction provides that a word used in different parts of the statute should be construed to have the identical meaning throughout the entire statute. When only one meaning of a word can be used consistently throughout the statute, that meaning is plain and unambiguous.*fn27

In complementary fashion, the Associations refer us to other sections of the PPIA in which the words "at least equal to" are used. For example, other sections of the PPIA require that the inspection programs of the several states be "at least equal to" the federal program.*fn28 As the Associations note, "the use of different words or terms within a statute indicates that Congress intended to establish a different meaning for those words."*fn29

On the other hand, the Agency argues that the language of the statute is ambiguous and thus, under Chevron, it need only show that its interpretation of the ambiguous statutory language is reasonable. In support of its contention, the Agency relies on secondary dictionary definitions of the adjective "same." Conceding that the primary meaning of the adjective is "resembling in every way," the government notes that other, secondary definitions include "closely similar" and "comparable," with synonyms of "equivalent" and "tantamount."*fn30 At oral argument, counsel for the Agency proclaimed that if Congress had used the word "identical" instead of the term "the same as," "I don't think we'd be here today." We fail to see the distinction: Even these secondary meanings are synonymous with "the same as" but not with "at least equal to."

Although we acknowledge that "the existence of alternative dictionary definitions of the word . . . each making some sense under the statue, itself indicates that the statute is open to interpretation,"*fn31 this rule does not advance the Agency's position in the instant case. As the Associations have demonstrated using well established canons of statutory construction, "at least equal to" as a substitute for "the same as" does not make sense under this statute. In any event, we find the Agency's argument disingenuous. Just as there are no degrees of uniqueness, there are no degrees of identity; any fair reading of the dictionary definition of "the same" overwhelmingly demonstrates that "the same" is congruent with "identical."*fn32 And the Agency's protestations about permissible deviations from an absolute requirement of identity are shown to be unfounded; such de minimis variances are encompassed by the Committee Report's authorized exceptions for "technical deviations."

If the Secretary ever harbored non-frivolous quibbles as to Congress' intent in choosing the term "the same as," they were absolutely eliminated by the subsequent congressional declaration in the 1990 Farm Bill. In that Act, Congress stated emphatically and unequivocally that the Agency has misinterpreted the "same as" standard. The Agency's efforts to make much of Congress' failure actually to amend the statute is a red herring. There simply was no need for Congress to amend the statue; it already stated precisely what Congress wanted it to state. Congress desired the "same as" language, and that is the language it placed in the statute. It is not required to respond to the Agency's disregard of unequivocally expressed congressional intent by amending a statute that is both clear and unambiguous on its face.

The Agency also argues that construing "the same as" to mean identical would lead to an absurd result, one which for example would prevent the importation of poultry products processed under superior systems. Even if the Agency is correct, however, we cannot agree that the result is absurd. Had the Agency labeled the actions of Congress protectionism, we would not necessarily disagree. But, while that may be deemed in some quarters to be unwise or undesirable, it cannot be labeled "absurd" in the context of divining the result intended by Congress. The Agency's complaint, therefore, is one implicating the clear policy choice of Congress -- a choice made, undoubtedly, in response to effective lobbying by domestic poultry producers. It is not within the purview of the Agency, however -- or of the courts for that matter -- to alter, frustrate, or subvert congressional policy. Our "third branch" role under the constitutional scheme of separation of powers is limited -- as is the role of the Agency -- to determining whether that policy is clearly expressed. We conclude that it is in this instance.

In another variation on the absurdity theme, the Agency insists that the interpretation urged by the Associations is absurd because it would place the PPIA in violation of the 1) General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT),*fn33 2) the ongoing trade negotiations under the auspices of GATT (the Uruguay Round of the Multilateral Trade Negotiations),*fn34 and 3) the United States-Canada Free-Trade Agreement (FTA).*fn35 The Agency adamantly insists that Congress cannot violate an international obligation without making a clear statement that it intends to do so. The Agency maintains further that a clear statement is especially appropriate in the instant case because the Executive Branch has exclusive responsibility for conducting international affairs. We discern fatal flaws in the Agency's position.

The Agency has obfuscatorily intertwined its arguments, but when they are untangled there appear three separate but related maxims governing the construction of statutes which implicate international obligations. First, Congress may abrogate a treaty or international obligation entered into by the United States only by a clear statement of its intent to do so.*fn36 Second, the extraterritorial application of domestic laws requires a clear statement of congressional intent so as "to protect against unintended clashes between our laws and those of other nations which could result in international discord."*fn37 And finally, "it has been a maxim of statutory construction since the decision in Murray v. The Charming Betsy, 6 U.S. 64, 2 Cranch 64, 118, 2 L. Ed. 208 (1804), that 'an act of Congress ought never to be construed to violate the law of nations, if any other possible construction remains.'"*fn38 Even when we grant arguendo that these truisms of statutory construction exist, we find them inapplicable and therefore not controlling in the instant case.

Despite the Agency's claim that Congress must clearly express its intention to violate the GATT, it fails to cite us to any authority for that specific proposition and we are aware of none. In fact, we are aware of strongly instructive authority to the contrary. The Federal Circuit*fn39 recently rejected out of hand the argument that a statutory provision should be read consistently with the obligations of the United States as a signatory of GATT -- the very position argued here by the Agency. The court reasoned that

even if . . . [the] Commerce[] [Department's] interpretation conflicts with the GATT, . . . the GATT is not controlling. While we acknowledge Congress's interest in complying with U.S. responsibilities under the GATT, we are bound not by what we think Congress should or perhaps wanted to do, but by what Congress in fact did. The GATT does not trump domestic legislation; if the statutory provisions at issue here are inconsistent with GATT, it is a matter for Congress and not this court to decide and remedy.*fn40

We conclude that this same, flawless reasoning applies to the instant case and mandates that we give effect to Congress' intent, even if implementation of that intent is virtually certain to create a violation of the GATT.

Our adoption of this reasoning is unaffected by the maxims of statutory construction cited above. The first maxim -- that a clear statement of Congress is required to abrogate a treaty -- does not require a different result here because Congress is not abrogating a treaty or an international obligation. Abrogation or repeal involves nullifying an obligation. In the instant case, Congress has at most evinced an intent to place the PPIA in violation of the GATT. Certainly, the United States has passed laws that, in a subsequent proceeding before a GATT panel, have been declared in violation of the GATT. Yet these violations have not signified the end of American involvement in the GATT.*fn41

Second, there is no need here for an Arabian American Oil Co. "clear statement" as required when Congress intends for its legislation to violate the GATT. The instant case is distinguishable from the situation in Arabian American Oil Co., which only requires such a clear statement when the intent of Congress is to apply domestic legislation extraterritorially, so as "to protect against unintended clashes between our laws and those of other nations which would result in international discord."*fn42 Also irrelevant to this case is the Agency's citation of Societe Nationale Industrielle Aerospatiale v. United States District Court for Southern District of Iowa,*fn43 in which the Court ...

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