Active: Federal lawsuit filed to stop unconstitutional in-house agency “courts”

Joe Manis is a retired North Carolina business owner who has been involved with Tennessee Walking Horses for more than 50 years. When he sold his modular-home company in May 2022 at age 76, he was finally able to focus on the beloved, elegant walking horses he owns and cares for at his family’s Laurinburg, NC, farm.

The Manis family is also a longtime fixture in the North Carolina Walking Horse Association, both in service—Joe has held just about every position in the association, including president—and in competition—his horses have earned many awards and recognition over the years.

The walking horse industry is far from a cash cow. Prize-winning riders and owners typically take home a small amount of money and maybe a ribbon. Indeed, Joe, along with his daughter and granddaughter, don’t do it for money or fame. They do it because they love it.

Joe was understandably stunned when inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) claimed he allowed one of his horses to be entered into a show while it was allegedly “sore.” Entering “sored” horses—horses whose legs have been purposely hurt to force a desired gait—in walking shows is outlawed by the federal Horse Protection Act.

The USDA has not alleged that Joe sored or otherwise abused his horse. In fact, the agency doesn’t accuse anyone of soring the horse. Nevertheless, Joe faces a steep fine and a ban of at least one year from the industry.

Even worse, the USDA filed an enforcement action against Joe, not in a court of law, but in the agency’s in-house tribunal. The entire enforcement process is now lodged within the USDA’s own walls, under its own rules, through its own judicial officer and administrative law judges (ALJs). Trying to prove his innocence was never a fair fight.

Like many in-house “trials” conducted by agency employees, the USDA’s process routinely ends with a USDA win. Accused citizens like Joe have huge mountains to climb, with little chance of success.

But the USDA’s in-house proceeding is unconstitutional because it denies Joe the protections guaranteed to private citizens facing government enforcement actions. First and foremost, because the government wants to restrict private conduct and impose financial penalties, the Constitution guarantees Joe the right to a fair trial before an impartial judge and jury. The USDA’s administrative hearing—with court-like procedures concocted by executive agencies, and conducted by an administrative “judge” who is employed by the USDA—denies Joe his constitutional rights.

Furthermore, the USDA lacks the power to impose a binding judgment on Joe. That tremendous power belongs to independent judges who have been nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The USDA’s judicial officer and administrative “judges”—non-independent employees of the USDA—were neither nominated by the president nor confirmed by the Senate. They therefore have no authority to issue binding orders against Joe.

With his right to due process on the line, Joe is fighting back. Represented by PLF free of charge as part of our initiative to End Agency Adjudication, he filed a federal lawsuit challenging the USDA’s authority to prosecute him within its own unconstitutional “courts.” His battle aims not only to prove his innocence, but also to restore the right of all Americans to a fair trial in an actual court of law.

What’s At Stake?

  • The Constitution guarantees all Americans the right to a fair trial in a court of law—before a neutral judge and jury—when the government accuses them of breaking the law. Government agencies cannot use in-house tribunals to sidestep this right.

Case Timeline

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