DoJ’s stance on California egg law could bode well for other states

In a surprising amicus brief, the Justice Department last week recommended that the Supreme Court not hear Missouri’s challenge to California’s animal-welfare laws, which mandate larger cages for some farm animals. The stance could bode well for animal-welfare advocates fighting for similar legislation in other states.

In the brief, top Justice officials—including Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco and Assistant Attorney General Joseph H. Hunt—argue that Missouri’s lawsuit against California “is not one of the rare cases that warrants” input from SCOTUS. Missouri and 12 other states filed their complaint with the Supreme Court against California’s laws in 2017. The states argued that California’s laws impede interstate commerce and had resulted in higher egg prices.

The officials write that the price of eggs “depend[s] on the cumulative effect of decisions by a series of marketplace actors,” and therefore the plaintiffs can’t reasonably make the case that California’s laws have a detrimental impact on other states’ economies by raising the price of eggs.

The brief “is likely to have an impact on whether the Supreme Court elects to hear Missouri’s challenge,” says John Seber, interim vice president for legal affairs at Mercy for Animals. Seber says he is “cautiously optimistic” that SCOTUS will refrain from taking the case, in which case Missouri would have to start its legal challenge from scratch.

And a challenge does seem likely: Missouri’s attorney general John Hawley said in a statement that Missouri “respectfully disagree[s] with the positions in the Solicitor General’s brief and we will continue to press the case forward.”

The Justice Department’s stance may surprise some who aren’t quick to associate the Trump administration with animal welfare. But Seber notes that the agency also filed a similar brief discouraging SCOTUS from hearing Indiana’s legal challenge to Massachusetts’ animal-welfare law, which passed in 2016. “We’re hoping that this is a good development for that case as well,” he says.

The brief comes a decade after California voters adopted the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which required the state’s farmers to provide larger enclosures for egg-laying hens and other farm animals. In 2010, the state passed a law that required that any eggs sold in California had to comply with its animal-welfare standards. Officials argued that it wanted to protect consumers from health risks, as well as level the playing field for California farmers who were competing with out-of-state farms that had lower animal-welfare standards. The laws took effect in 2015.

California is among the top egg producing states in the country, with over 13 million laying hens and more than 3.7 billion eggs produced in 2017.