Federal judge considers delaying hearings on Maui GMO ban because of pending legislation

A federal judge on Tuesday said she would consider delaying proceedings for a lawsuit challenging Maui's ban on the cultivation of genetically modified organisms because of legislation that could affect the outcome of the case.

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U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway had been scheduled to hear arguments on the case's merits Tuesday. But she instead asked the parties whether the case might be rendered moot if bills before the state House or Senate were to pass.

The bills would prohibit counties from restricting farming and ranching practices that are allowed by federal or state law.

The lawsuit before Mollway challenges a Maui County law created when voters passed a ballot initiative last year. The law imposes a moratorium on GMO crops until scientific studies are conducted on their safety and benefits.

Mollway said she could hear the merits of the lawsuit shortly after the Legislature adjourns in May if lawmakers don't pass the legislation, and this would only postpone the case a few months.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, Monsanto Co. and Agrigentics Inc., a unit of Dow Chemical Co., didn't object. Plaintiffs' attorney Margery Bronster said passage of such legislation would make the Maui County law "even more indefensible" than it is currently.

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The county's attorneys agreed to the delay, saying the county didn't want to spend resources enforcing the law only to have it rendered invalid later.

But a lawyer for the citizens group that sponsored the ballot initiative, the Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina Movement, or SHAKA Movement, objected.

Michael Carroll said his clients and Maui voters want the ordinance enforced. He said the court should start hearing the arguments now instead of deferring them to a later date.

Under a prior agreement between the court, plaintiffs and county, the ordinance wasn't to have taken effect until March 31. Carroll also argued against extending this date further if the hearing were pushed back until after the Legislature adjourns in May.

Mollway asked Carroll to file a brief by Friday outlining the harm his clients would suffer from a delay.