Robert Barnes is no stranger to controversial court cases and making salient arguments for his clients.
The Las Vegas-based attorney helped lay the groundwork and legal strategy to win an acquittal for Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teen who came to prominence in the shooting of rioters in Kenosha, Wis. in 2020. He helped actor Wesley Snipes win not-guilty verdicts on felony tax evasion charges that led the government to stop using the term “tax protester” as a reason for prosecution.
Currently Barnes is part of the legal team representing prominent radio host Alex Jones as he fights court cases in Connecticut and Texas related to broadcasts surrounding the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 – cases that some legal analysts say could have a major impact on First Amendment rights of journalists and the public regarding significant news events and controversial opinions.
But Barnes’s newest client, Amish farmer Amos Miller, poses one of the most unique opportunities for the lawyer who revels in being an outsider and taking contrarian positions – defining freedom and what Americans are permitted to put in their bodies.
Reached by phone, Barnes said the Upper Leacock farmer’s years-long battle with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice over meat processing and regulations is “at the forefront of a range of critical constitutional and legal issues in America,” including religious freedoms, food freedoms, bodily autonomy and regulatory overreach. He said Miller’s case is so egregious and the issues so important that it stands a good chance to be heard in front of the Supreme Court of the United States.
“We need clarity in the legal arena, we need constitutional protection for everybody, and this issue is at the forefront of it,” Barnes said.
Barnes said he was recently approached about representing Miller and was intrigued by the details of the case. He said the government has long maintained the perspective that the USDA is the “best protector of food safety” and that its inspectors and regulators should be the ones to decide what food the public is allowed to eat and what farmers are allowed to produce.
Barnes said the fact that a community of faith like the Amish and Miller, who seeks to produce food through traditional methods of organic farming and raising livestock, is a “secondary” concern when the USDA “sees as its prerogative to protect the food supply as they see fit.” He said Miller’s case transcends the view that some have of a farmer not wanting to follow USDA regulations.
“Does a farmer get to decide how to do things the best way, or does the government get to decide?” Barnes asked. “Do communities of faith get to protect their traditions, or must those be sacrificed to regulatory efficiency? These cases are core for everybody because if you don’t get to control what you eat, what do you control? If you don’t control your own body, at what point do you no longer have meaningful freedom or liberty in America?”
Barnes said Miller’s case is also “very unusual” because it didn’t result from any of his customers making complaints about his products. Instead, the case was initiated by the USDA despite Miller’s customers requesting that he not follow certain regulatory procedures, including processes for butchering meat and the use of chemicals like citric acid for treating meat.
Regulations from the USDA were designed for “marketing purposes,” Barnes said, making sure customers were receiving the products they expected they were buying and for “accuracy in advertising.” He said the regulations include a “certain federal assurance of safety,” but the safety definition comes from the federal government and is not universally agreed upon by all consumers.
Barnes said the government and the USDA want a “one size fits all system” where it makes all the decisions, ignoring informed consent of the consumer and producer.
Case law regarding the private membership co-op model Miller maintains with his customers has a “lack of clarity,” Barnes said, leading to disagreements like the current case. Barnes said Associate Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has made comments regarding religious expression and the First Amendment implications of farming and food related activities in recent cases, leading to potential ambiguities on regulations.
Barnes said historically when the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 was passed, there was “great concern” that the law would be used to govern what consumers could eat in their own homes. He said that fear has been realized in Miller’s case as the USDA has put certain restrictions on the meat he can serve to his own family from his own farm, requiring certain labeling and identification under the threat of additional fines to go along with the more than $300,000 in fines he already faces.
“Many people don’t agree with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s celebration of big agricultural techniques as the only way to have safe food in America,” Barnes said. “Many people see that as unsafe food. And we can just look at the health consequences of the diet recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the last 50 years and see that their strategies have failed. They have made us unhealthier. They have made us sicker. They haven’t made us better. But putting that empirical question aside, the question of power, the constitutional question, the legal question of who decides what is safe, is one that should be left in the hands of the individual, not the government.”
When asked if Miller’s case is the type that could end up in front of SCOTUS, Barnes had a one-word answer – “absolutely.”
Barnes said the Miller case presents the “cleanest, neatest issue from a legal perspective.” He said he would challenge anyone to find another case where the USDA has sought and obtained fines and sanctions and threatened imprisonment when “there is not a single consumer complaining.”
“This is a community that got together – whether it’s a cooperative, whether it’s a private membership association – that knowingly, deliberately and intentionally chose this method to eat their food because they think it’s the safest, and they have a lot of empirical evidence on their side,” Barnes said. “Do they get to decide, or does the U.S. Department of Agriculture get to decide? Because if the U.S. Department of Agriculture decides, we’re going to be eating fake meat and synthetic corn from Bill Gates. And I don’t think most Americans want that.”
Miller’s most recent court appearance was continued until Oct. 31 for a show cause hearing, giving time for Barnes to more fully formulate his case. The attorney said he plans to come to Miller’s farm sometime this month to talk with him.
Barnes said he’s been to Lancaster County “several times” in his life. When he was a child growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn., his family would travel to his grandparent’s diner in New Hampshire where he would work for the summer, and as part of the trip they would stop off in “Amish country” in Lancaster County.
The lawyer was last through the region in 2016 when he was traveling through Pennsylvania doing research on the 2016 election. He wagered in European betting markets that Donald Trump would be elected president, winning $100,000 in the process.
Barnes has also been a part of a “half-dozen” court cases in Pennsylvania, he said, although none of them reached a jury trial, and he has represented clients in nearly every state in the country.
Barnes said he’s eager to take on Miller’s case, saying the farmer “has not had effective advocacy” in his hearings and filings. He said the USDA may have chosen Miller to set an example for other farmers seeking to use his business model because the government knows members of the Amish community “don’t seek attention and don’t engage in the legal system.”
“Unfortunately, that makes people in the Amish community particularly vulnerable to abuse of power by rogue federal government agencies,” Barnes said. “And that was facilitated, frankly, by his ineffective prior counsel. That has now changed, and it will stay changed as long as I’m counsel on the case.”