Federal judge rejects motion to halt deer cull in light of pending lawsuit

Tuesday, January 12, 2016 - 9:42pm

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A legal motion aiming to halt the city’s deer cull was shot down by a federal judge after a court hearing Monday afternoon.

In September, City Council approved a cull of up to 100 deer in response to concerns about the city’s growing deer population. The move has prompted controversy, several protests and now, legal action.

The Detroit Federal District Court ruled against the plaintiffs of Sanzotta et al vs. City of Ann Arbor et al’s motion for a preliminary injunction — a legally binding court order granted before the resolution of a lawsuit — that would have compelled the city to stop its planned cull until the lawsuit is resolved. To receive such an order, the plaintiffs would have had to prove both that they were likely to win the suit and that irreversible damage would occur if it was not granted.

In addition, Justice Arthur Tarnow also declined to issue a temporary restraining order. Legal representatives from the city, Michigan state government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture — the department’s Wildlife Services is conducting the cull — were all present at the hearing to argue against the motion. Representatives from the plaintiffs were also present.

The judge gave the plaintiffs another week to submit a revision, to which the defendants would then be allotted 21 days to reply. However, the plaintiffs rejected the offer, and said they intended to withdraw their complaints from federal jurisdiction and refile the case at the state level.

All three defendant parties claimed the plaintiffs met none of the criteria needed to be granted an injunction, and lacked standing to sue both the federal and Michigan governments.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Theresa Urbanic, who represented the federal government, said the plaintiffs lacked legal foundation to win the suit in the response she filed with the court.

“(The) plaintiffs’ complaint runs nearly one hundred pages, asserts eleven different claims against a host of defendants, and includes a laundry list of constitutional theories,” Urbanic wrote, referring to the lawsuit filed by the plaintiffs. “Mere repetition of constitutional labels … cannot suffice to show a strong likelihood of success on the merits.”

In an interview, Barry Powers, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, reiterated the position of his plaintiffs in response: that the cull carries active hazards for public safety and bypasses state laws, and that there had been no environmental assessment of the cull though such an assessment is federally mandated.

“Under what principle of law do they justify their activities?,” Powers said. “We’ve assumed that somebody would eventually step up and answer that question. But so far all we’ve been met with are legal technicalities and assurances.”

Stephen Postema, Ann Arbor City Attorney, wrote in a response filed with the court that issuing an injunction to halt the cull would harm public interest and that no state laws were being bypassed.

“Allowing the cull to proceed does not damage, but actually furthers, the State policy permitting municipalities to exercise their valid police powers to manage and control wildlife nuisances,” Postema wrote. “The City adopted the Deer Management Plan to alleviate these nuisances as a matter of public health, safety, and welfare.”

Plaintiff Sabra Sanzotta said in an interview the judge was primarily concerned with determining whether the case fell under federal jurisdiction. She said his questioning and investigations served to evaluate this issue.

Sanzotta said Powers cited several legal reasons to support the motion being subject to federal jurisdiction in court, namely the USDA’s role in the deer cull as a federal agency.

She added that she was concerned civil rights were being violated by the cull due to the court’s method of dismissing the case, and that public safety concerns remained.

“I’m sick about it in the very center of my being because I think it’s a horrible bloodbath that is unnecessary,” Sanzotta said. “I’m afraid for my own family; we use the parks all the time.”

Daily Staff Reporter Anna Haritos contributed to this article.