National advocacy groups will assist in fighting for regulation of GM crops
Hawaii County’s ordinance had banned growing GMO crops in open-air conditions, with some exceptions, but was struck down by US Judge Barry Kurren. Now Hawaii County is fighting back with the help of NGOs.
Hawaii County Council brings Earthjustice attorney into GMO case
By Nancy Cook Lauer
West Hawaii Today, 5 Feb 2015
* National advocacy groups will assist in the defense of [GMW: against?] a lawsuit filed by agriculture and biotechnology groups
Hawaii County won’t have to go it alone in its fight to regulate genetically modified crops on the island.
The County Council, by a 6-3 vote late Wednesday, agreed to allow attorneys from national advocacy groups Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety to assist in the county’s defense of a lawsuit filed by Hawaii Floriculture and Nursery Association and other agriculture and biotechnology groups.
Puna Councilmen Greggor Ilagan and Danny Paleka joined Hilo Councilmen Dennis “Fresh” Onishi on the no votes. Onishi and Chung said special counsel isn’t needed because the lawyers can’t bring up any new issues on the appeal that haven’t already been argued by the county Corporation Counsel at the lower court level.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren invalidated the county’s partial GMO ban in a Nov. 27 order, saying state law pre-empts county law on the issue. He said lawmakers intended the state to have broad oversight of agricultural issues in Hawaii.
Paleka likened hiring the attorneys to retaining the National Rifle Association to support a county firearms law.
Aaron Chung, who along with Ilagan, Paleka and Onishi, had voted in December against appealing Kurren’s order, voted with the majority Wednesday to bring on the special counsel. Six votes were needed to allow the pro bono attorneys to assist on the case.
“I’m still against the ordinance, but I don’t want to put you guys in a bad position,” Chung told the county attorneys who were asking for the assistance.
Chung said the attorneys would be able to use the time freed up by the free attorneys to do other necessary legal work for the county.
Deputy Corporation Counsel Katherine Garson said if the county loses at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the next step is the U.S. Supreme Court. The council would have to decide whether to continue appealing, she said.
North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff acknowledged that not all council members wanted to fight the lawsuit.
“Now that we are engaged, I think we should do the very best that we can with the expertise that is offered,” Eoff said.
Seventy people weighed in on the issue over a long council day, with 64 in favor of accepting legal help and six, including an attorney for the other side, opposing the free assistance. The county would be liable for court costs up to $10,000.
Margery S. Bronster, a former state attorney general hired by the groups suing the county, said Paul Achitoff, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s mid-Pacific regional office and former counsel of record for the Center for Food Safety, has a conflict of interest representing the county because the anti-GMO groups have a different agenda from the county.
“I would submit to you that the law does not allow it,” Bronster said.
Kim Kozuma of Hilo said if the county persists in defending its GMO law, it should pay its own legal fees. Doing otherwise could set a bad precedent, she said.
“In politics, there’s no difference between Earthjustice and Monsanto,” Kozuma said.
But Rene Siracusa, a Puna organic farmer, said she, as one of many Hawaii contributors to Earthjustice, is helping pay the legal bill to fight GMO on the island.
“Earthjustice is represented by many of your constituents,” Siracusa said.
Many testifiers, including longtime Kurtistown farmer and activist Jim Albertini, were incredulous that Bronster would appear before the council and advise members on their legal rights.
“Margery Bronster has a lot of nerve coming here,” Albertini said, characterizing the action as arrogant. “The higher the monkey goes up the tree, the more you see his okole.”
“I think we all know when people do battle in court that one side does not go out of their way to help the other side,” said Puna organic farmer Jack Weber.
Weber said the argument over whether anyone has a conflict of interest should be “sussed out in a courtroom.” Only the judge can decide if there’s a conflict of interest, he said.
“If the other side says, ‘don’t hire that attorney,’ I’m going to be the first to hire them,” added Keone Silvestrone.
Hamakua Council-woman Valerie Poindexter said she thought Bronster’s actions in writing two letters to the council “disrespectful,” as attorneys in lawsuits generally address each other, not each other’s clients.
The council held its debate and vote in open session, although state law allowed members to go behind closed doors in executive session to discuss litigation.
The county ordinance bans growing GMO crops in open-air conditions, with some exceptions. Papaya and corn already growing on the island, as well as scientific study in greenhouses and other enclosed settings, were exempted by the county ordinance.