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Tulsa World

Cockfighting ban stops

IDABEL -- A district judge left Oklahoma's cockfighting ban on hold in the southeastern corner of the state Monday, leaving a temporary restraining order in place and promising a preliminary injunction by Wednesday.

Judge Willard Driesel's ruling prevents police and sheriffs in the state's 17th judicial district -- Choctaw, McCurtain and Pushmataha counties -- from enforcing the ban on the blood sport.

Oklahoma voters outlawed cockfighting Nov. 5, joining 47 other states. The activity remains legal in only Louisiana and New Mexico.

Driesel, who issued the temporary restraining order Nov. 8, said he had a number of concerns with the new law. Foremost among them, according to his comments from the bench, was determining the state's intent with regard to cockfighting.

"We all know that the state can regulate our activities, can punish us, can take our property from us if the state has a legitimate interest," Driesel said before announcing his ruling. "What is the state's interest in regulating this activity?"

Preventing animal cruelty seems to be the intent of the law, he said, but enforcing the law seemed likely to create the opposite result.

Driesel's comments followed those of five witnesses engaged in raising game fowl for fighting. They all said the would probably destroy their birds in light of the new law.

"This law would make extinct in the state of Oklahoma the very birds we are trying to protect," Driesel said.

Until the intent of the law is resolved to his satisfaction, he said the preliminary injunction was an appropriate step.

Driesel did not set a date for a final hearing on the matter but said it would come after Jan. 1.

Driesel's ruling early Monday afternoon drew applause from a crowd of cockfighting supporters who filled the gallery, jury box, both aisles and flowed into the hallways of the McCurtain County Courthouse in Idabel.

Larry Oliver, an attorney for the game fowl breeders, greeted the judge's ruling as a victory for freedom and justice.

James Tally, president of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Breeders Association, who also appeared as a witness on cockfighting's impact on the area, said he felt that the judge understood cockfighters' arguments against the ban.

"We had a good day today," Tally said. "I'm thinking the point he made about the initiative being too broad is what we have been saying all along. It's unconstitutional."

The ruling came in one of the strongholds of cockfighting, and the room jammed with supporters was a scene that likely will be repeated in the coming weeks. Nearly identical lawsuits have been filed on cockfighters' behalf in Adair, Sequoyah and Muskogee counties, all part of the state's 15th judicial district, which also includes Wagoner and Cherokee counties. An injunction in one of those cases likely would carry weight throughout the judicial district.

Hearings on those suits have been set for next month, and Tally expected a similar crowd for each.

Only a few opponents of cockfighting were among the more than 300 people packed into the second-floor courtroom. One was Cynthia Armstrong of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting.

"We feel confident that the language of the cockfighting ban is constitutional and will be upheld," Armstrong said after the hearing.

The cockfighting law is identical to the state's dog fighting law, which the state Supreme Court has already upheld, Armstrong said.

Driesel also said the matter was likely to wind up in the Supreme Court. As he noted, issues of constitutionality are rarities for district judges.

Tally said cockfighters are concerned about what sort of reception their arguments might receive on appeal.

When cockfighters challenged the initiative petition that led to the vote, the state Supreme Court upheld the proposal on an 8-0 vote with one abstention.

"We got no justice there before," Tally said.