Supreme Court considers hog industry challenge to California animal welfare law

WASHINGTON — A California animal welfare measure that prohibits the sale of pork when breeding pigs are housed in confined spaces that prevent them from moving freely goes under the microscope at the Supreme Court on Tuesday as justices determine whether it impermissibly regulates farmers from other states.

Californians approved Proposition 12 in 2018 with nearly 63% of the vote, a margin of more than 3 million votes. State attorneys highlighted in court documents voters have been told the measure, which is not in effect, would likely raise the price of pork while providing more humane living conditions for pigs and potentially reducing the risk of foodborne illness.

A pig and piglets in a pen at a ranch in Nicasio, California on May 19, 2020.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images File

The National Pork Producers Council, which represents the pork industry, and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents agricultural interests, sued in 2019 claiming the measure violates a provision of the Constitution called the Commerce Clausewhich has been interpreted as prohibiting states from interfering with interstate commerce.

Challengers say the measure impermissibly interferes with interstate commerce in part because nearly all of the pork sold in California is produced out of state. The law also imposes an excessive burden on out-of-state entities without having a clear in-state advantage, they argue. As a result, they say, the law has unlawfully extended extraterritorial effect.

Lower courts upheld the measure, prompting challengers to turn to the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority.

Groups that support California say a broad ruling against the state could limit states’ ability to enact laws on a range of issues, including measures to tackle climate change, such as by striving to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by promoting renewable energy.

“What pork producers are asking for is completely unprecedented,” said Brian Frazelle, an attorney at the Constitutional Accountability Center, a liberal legal group that filed a brief supporting the state.

Michael Formica, chief legal strategist for the pork producers group, played down the impact a ruling against California could have, saying it wouldn’t stop states from passing environmental laws that protect the health of their population.

“Anything on their minds really seems like a red herring,” he said.

A ruling that upholds the law, he added, would encourage other big states like Texas and Florida to adopt other measures that would affect the nation as a whole. For example, Texas could require out-of-state businesses to certify that all of their employees have legal immigration status, Formica said.

The groups claim in court documents that Proposition 12 will “transform the hog industry nationwide” because currently nearly all farmers keep sows in pens that do not follow the law.

That view has been challenged by California and its allies, including meat producer Perdue Premium Meat Company, which filed a brief in the case saying its brand Niman Ranch has for years been raising pigs that would have been compliant. to the requirements of Proposition 12.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is defending the law, said in court papers the measure is valid under the trade clause because it is not intended to advantage California producers over out-of-state competitors. . The Supreme Court would have to impose new limits on states if it accepted the challenger’s arguments that a regulation related to sales in the state can be invalidated because it has a significant practical impact on other states, he added.

The Biden administration has backed the challengers in the case, with Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar saying Proposition 12 unreasonably restricts interstate commerce in part because it regulates the welfare of animals that aren’t on the land. within state borders. Nor do the claimed benefits justify the sweeping nature of the law because its health benefits have not been established, she argued.

As a result, Proposition 12 is fundamentally different from environmental laws with out-of-state impacts that have concrete health benefits that have already been upheld, Prelogar said.

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