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Supreme Court Upholds California’s Animal-Cruelty Law

Adam Liptak reported in Friday’s New York Times that, “The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a California law that sought to address cruelty to animals, saying the state could require pork sold there but produced elsewhere to come from breeding pigs housed in spaces that allow them to move around freely.

“The decision was badly fractured and featured competing rationales, but the basic vote was 5 to 4. In a controlling opinion, four justices said that the pork producers challenging the law failed to make the case that it imposed a substantial burden on interstate commerce.

The article explained that, “Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, here writing for five justices, set out the main issue. The challenged law, he said, prohibited ‘the in-state sale of certain pork products derived from breeding pigs confined in stalls so small they cannot lie down, stand up or turn around.’

It is true, he went on, that ‘no state may use its laws to discriminate purposefully against out-of-state economic interests.’ But the California law, he wrote, did not offend that principle.

The law, Proposition 12, a 2018 ballot measure that was approved by more than 60 percent of the state’s voters, was challenged by two trade groups that said it interfered with interstate commerce and sound business practices,” the Times article said.

Jess Bravin and Jan Wolfe reported in Friday’s Wall Street Journal that, “The bare 5-4 majority upholding California’s law scrambled the court’s ideological chessboard. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion was joined in full by Justice Clarence Thomas, in most parts by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and to a different degree by Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

“That majority agreed that Proposition 12, a 2018 California ballot initiative setting minimum cage sizes for products of breeding pigs, veal calves and egg-laying hens sold within the state, didn’t discriminate against out-of-state producers. Therefore, they found no violation of Supreme Court precedents that prevent states from enacting protectionist legislation that favors in-state businesses over competitors based elsewhere.”

The Journal article pointed out that, “California represents some 13% of the national market for pork but other states produce nearly all the pork Californians eat. As a result, the meatpacking industry alleged, Proposition 12 unconstitutionally reached beyond the state line to burden companies based in Iowa, North Carolina, Illinois and other pork-producing states.

“Not so, Justice Gorsuch wrote for the majority, upholding lower-court decisions dismissing the industry’s lawsuit.

‘While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list,’ he said. The law applied equally to the small number of pork producers in California as it did to those elsewhere, Justice Gorsuch said, and the fact that it might affect the economic calculations of businesses across the country made it no different from myriad laws states regularly pass that regulate the marketplace.

And Washington Post writer Robert Barnes reported in Friday’s paper that, “It’s uncontested that states can regulate pork raised within its borders. But Proposition 12, passed by nearly 63 percent of Californians in 2018, went beyond that parameter, banning the sale of products derived from sows that are not allowed at least 24 square feet of space — regardless of where the sows are raised. California raises little pork, but consumes about 13 percent of the nation’s total.

“The referendum was challenged by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation, and drew support from business groups who worried about the ability of a state to regulate activity beyond its borders.”

The Des Moines Register (Front Page – May 12, 2023).

John Fritze and Donnelle Eller reported in the front page of Friday’s Des Moines Register that, “The court affirmed a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which sided with California.”

The article noted that, “The deeper legal debate in the case centered on what’s known as the dormant commerce clause, which generally bars states from passing laws that burden interstate commerce. If Congress has not passed a law affecting interstate commerce, the assumption under the doctrine is that lawmakers intended an open market without state regulation.

“But there are questions about how much support that doctrine still has. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had dismissed the farmers’ lawsuit, asserting that while the dormant commerce clause is not yet dead, ‘it is moving in that direction.'”

The Register article added that, “The immediate effect of the ruling is unclear. California voters approved Proposition 12 in 2018, but implementation of the law has been on hold amid the litigation and as state officials work on the complex regulations needed to enforce it.”

Keith Good Photo

Keith Good is the Farm Policy News editor for the farmdoc project. He has previously worked for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, and compiled the daily News Summary from 2003-2015. He is a graduate of Purdue University (M.S.- Agricultural Economics), and Southern Illinois University School of Law.

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