Public Justice Food Project
Founded in 1982 as Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, the Public Justice Foundation is a nonprofit corporation created by trial lawyers to defend class-action lawsuits. Public Justice Foundation is an affiliate of Public Justice PC, a law firm. Both are based in Washington, D.C.
In 2011, this trial-lawyer group decided to set its sights on a new target: farmers. The Public Justice Foundation launched its Food Project, which uses the court systems to attack American agriculture from numerous angles. Public Justice has filed lawsuits against states and farms in topics ranging from farm privacy to beef checkoffs.
Staff and Agenda
The overall agenda of Public Justice appears to be to support the ability of trial lawyers to sue and make bank. The Food Project, however, represents a foray into activist litigation.
Public Justice Food Project is staffed by former employees of radical activist groups. Food Project director Jessica Culpepper’s previous job was working as a staff attorney for the Humane Society of the United States, a vegan advocacy group that wants to shut down all animal agriculture—just like PETA.
Senior Food Project attorney Brent Newell and associate attorney Kellan Smith have strong ties to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). Smith previously clerked for the organization, while Newell currently serves on one of the organization’s boards. Smith also worked for the Center for Food Safety, the same organization that tried to create a Mad Cow Disease scare in the late 90’s by claiming the American beef supply was inherently dangerous.
CBD is known for having an extremist environmental agenda. One co-founder bragged that “we could bring industrial civilization to its knees” if CBD could implement its policies. Another said, “We’d like to close thousands of miles of roads, and see a huge amount of retooling of local economies.” A third co-founder was even more blunt: “We will have to inflict severe economic pain.”
It’s particularly telling for Public Justice to hire activists tied to CBD. Public Justice has helped some small ranchers sue over the beef checkoff program. One might think Public Justice was a friend of small ranchers. Yet CBD is an anti-ranching organization. Said one CBD co-founder: “Ranching is one of the most nihilistic life styles this planet has ever seen. It should end. Good riddance.” CBD also was ordered to pay $600,000, including $500,000 in punitive damages, after a jury vote 9-1 that it had made “false, unfair, libelous and defamatory statements” about a rancher.
Public Justice Food Project has also partnered with extremist organizations such as Sierra Club, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Equality and, Food and Water Watch.
The Public Justice Food Project serves a singular purpose: Use the legal system to tear down the agricultural system.
One of the targets of Public Justice is beef checkoffs, a fund ranchers pay into that finances research and general promotion of beef (think: “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.”). That research has helped to cement beef’s placement in the American diet and promote sustainable practices. It benefits all ranchers.
Public Justice-backed litigation would lead to ranchers to not pay into the fund—allowing those who don’t pay into checkoffs reap the same benefits as those who do. The lawsuit could undermine the checkoff and have a tumultuous effect on the industry as a whole. Activists have viewed taking down the checkoff programs as a way to defang animal agriculture.
The Public Justice Food Project also has set its sights on “Right to Farm” laws. These laws became popular in the 1970s, as suburban communities started to appear in rural spaces that were previously used for farmland. As these new communities appeared, new residents would sue the farmers who had been there for years over the smell, noises, and the look of the farms. More recent right to farm laws have sought to preserve the right to use standard practices, which activists have been trying to ban via legislation.
Another focus of PJFP is overturning farmer privacy and anti-employment fraud laws. Many states have made it illegal for people to seek employment using fake identities and employment histories in order to perform undercover investigations. These “investigations” often are carried out by animal rights extremists who intend to edit videos and show animal agriculture in a negative light. In some cases, activists will sit on abuse footage for months allowing for the abuse to be perpetuated, while the activists wait for the right time to capitalize on abuse.
The “Public” Justice Foundation doesn’t receive much support from the general public.
The Foundation received about $2 million from membership dues in 2017. Public Justice members are dozens of plaintiffs’ law firms. The highest paying member is Baron & Budd, a Texas practice that specializes in asbestos litigation.
Of the more than $4 million Public Justice Foundation received in general contributions, 92% came from just four donors.
Of the nearly $4.8 million Public Justice spent, 40% of the spending went to paying salaries and other forms of compensation, and 32% went to a singular grant to Public Justice P.C., a law firm affiliated with the foundation.