Date: Wed, 15 Mar 1995 01:31:53 -0500 (EST)
From: Chris Stamper 

[From an America's Future publication dated 3/95. -Chris]


Remember when environmentalists blocked construction of a Tennessee dam a few years ago out of concern for the snail darter, an endangered species? Well, now it's a rare breed of rats!

No environmental issue generates so much emotion as that of the endangered species. The thought of losing soaring eagles and other birds of prey, or walruses and dolphins, or any of hundreds of other species motivates many Americans to get out their wallets and give to the environmental groups. Or join citizens protest movements. But what happens when animals start becoming more important than people?

This is what's happening in the life of Taung Ming-Lin, a legal immigrant from Taiwan. A resident of agricultural Kern County, California, Ming-Lin owns 723 acres on which he wants to grow Chinese vegetables to sell in Los Angeles. According to the government, Ming-Lin ran afoul of the Endangered Species Act when he started plowing up his property to do his planting. The government has charged Ming-Lin with killing several so-called Tipton kangaroo rats, which are on the endangered species list. The government has also charged him with destroying the habitat of several other endangered species.

Ming-Lin's case has become a cause celebre in Kern County because of the long-term implications. If the government is successful, Ming-Lin will have to give up half his land to the government for species habitat and pay $172,000 a year for the upkeep of this land. And that's on top of the $600,000 fine the government wants to impose. Ming-Lin's supporters say that if the government wants to protect the Tipton kangaroo rat by taking Ming-Lin's land, the government should have to pay for it, under the terms of the Takings Clause of the Constitution's First Amendment [Tim's note: this should read 'Fifth Amendment']. There is also a question of whether the Tipton variety of the kangaroo rat is really endangered, but that won't be addressed by the court.

Emotions have been running high in this case. Last summer, several hundred other Kern County farmers held a rally in Fresno to protest the government's crackdown on Ming-Lin. They quite reasonably feared that the government could do the same thing to them, if it looked hard enough. And the government, in a bit of legal footwork, now wants to charge Ming-Lin as a corporation rather than an individual. That's because, as an individual, Ming-Lin would be automatically entitled to a jury trial. As a corporation, however, the case could be heard just by a judge.

Clearly, the government did not want to have to defend its position before a jury of Ming-Lin's peers, but rather wanted to take its chances with a federal judge. By having to convince citizens of the correctness of its position, the government would have had to address the central question: Are animals more important than people? Before a judge, the government lawyers could jump into lengthy technical discussions concerning fine points of the law while avoiding the central question. Despite its wishes, however, the government will still have to prosecute it before a jury early next month. A federal judge ruled that the case was "serious enough" - a requirement under the law on trying corporations - to justify a jury trial. So Ming-Lin will have his day in court, after all.

Property rights groups say the Ming-Lin case could help further define the scope of the First [sic] Amendment's Taking Clause. Environmentalists, on the other hand, contend that the government's enforcement powers could be reaffirmed by the case, depending on the outcome. While these are important issues, the central question remains: Can animals take precedence over people?

(Behind the Headlines, written by Philip C. Clarke, is a syndicated column distributed by America's Future. It is available to interested newspapers and other publications on a gratis basis as a service of this non-profit educational organization. For more information, please write or call Mr. John Wetzel, c/o America's Future Inc., P.O. Box 1625, Milford, Pa. 18337 (717) 296-2800.)