Tennessee Walking Horses have been a labor of love for Jimmy McConnell for more than five decades. At his Shelbyville, Tennessee, stable, Jimmy and his six dedicated employees board, care for, and train dozens of horses for numerous walking horse events. Jimmy is a successful competitor himself and counts Grand Champion of the prestigious Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration among his accomplishments.
The Walking Horse industry is far from a cash cow. Prize winning riders typically take home a small amount of money and maybe a ribbon. Indeed, the owners and trainers of these renowned horses don’t do it for money or fame. They do it because they love it.
Nevertheless, Jimmy is on the verge of losing everything he’s spent his life working for. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) accused him of cheating his way through competitions with “sored” horses. Entering sored horses—horses whose legs have been purposely hurt to force a desired gait—in walking shows is outlawed by the Horse Protection Act. And while the USDA has never alleged that Jimmy sored any horses, he still faces crushing financial penalties and lifetime bans from the industry.
Jimmy has spent nearly a decade fighting tooth and nail to prove his innocence. But the fight was never fair to begin with. Despite the Constitution’s due process guarantee of a fair trial in a real court of law, the USDA has kept the entire enforcement process within its own walls, under its own rules, through its own judicial officer and administrative law judges (ALJs).
Like many in-house tribunals conducted by agency employees, the USDA’s process routinely ends with a USDA win. Accused citizens like Jimmy have huge mountains to climb with little chance of success.
The Constitution, however, includes a host of protections for private citizens facing government enforcement actions. First and foremost is the right to a fair trial before an impartial judge and jury. This means a real court of law, not court-like procedures concocted by executive agencies to add judge and jury to their existing prosecutor roles.
Due process also requires that trials for common-law fraud allegations—like entering prohibited horses into competitions—take place before a neutral judge, not an employee of the same government agency making the accusation. Plus, the financial penalty hanging over Jimmy is a legal remedy which, under the Constitution, also entitles him to a jury trial.
If that weren’t enough, the USDA’s judicial officer and ALJs are making final, binding legal judgments with power they don’t have. The power to destroy lives is so tremendous that the Constitution requires presidential nomination and Senate confirmation for those who wield it. The agency’s judicial officer and ALJs have neither.
With his livelihood and core private rights on the line, Jimmy is fighting back. Represented by PLF free of charge, he filed a federal lawsuit challenging the USDA’s authority to prosecute him within its own walls using unconstitutional in-house judges. For Jimmy, his battle now isn’t just about proving his innocence; it’s also about restoring the right of all Americans to a fair trial in an actual court of law.