In a 5-4 decision on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a California law that regulates the treatment of sows and other farmed animals and prevents the sale of meat products from other states that do not meet its requirements.
The Humane Society of the United States has called it “the strongest law in the world addressing animal confinement,” but farm interests fought the law, claiming that it interferes with interstate commerce protected by the U.S. Constitution.
The Court disagreed with the industry’s argument.
“While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the Court’s primary opinion.
The ruling is a major blow to the pork industry, which also claimed the law imposes an unconstitutional financial burden on the nation’s hog farmers and could result in higher meat prices.
A popular ballot initiative enacted in 2018, California’s Proposition 12 requires in-state farmers to give pigs enough space for the animals to turn around, lie down, stand up and extend their legs. This minimal requirement is not widely met by the nation’s meat producers, who often confine female breeding pigs to so-called gestation crates. The metal enclosures are so small that sows are unable to turn around for virtually all their lives. (The proposition also regulates the confinement of egg-laying hens and veal calves, though the case before the Supreme Court did not focus on those restrictions.)
Proposition 12 also prohibits the sale of pork produced by farmers who fail to meet these requirements, even if those farmers operate outside of California. Californians buy about 13 percent of all pork sold in the U.S., so hog farmers throughout the country will need to rebuild their pig barns if they want to keep selling pork in California. As a result, the state law could indirectly lead to a new national standard.
In National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, the National Pork Producers Council, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and other industry groups argued that Proposition 12 unconstitutionally imposes California law on other states, and as such violates what’s known as the “dormant commerce clause.” This theory holds that, even if the Constitution does not explicitly say anything about state law, by granting power over interstate commerce to Congress the Constitution implicitly prohibits states from passing laws that discriminate against interstate commerce.
“Proposition 12, if allowed to stand, may embolden other states to regulate beyond their borders, resulting in a complex web of inconsistent and competing extraterritorial regulations in the agriculture, food and other industries,” wrote the National Association of Manufacturers in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in support of the National Pork Producers Council and other plaintiffs.
The case quickly became about more than pig pens. Industry groups, activist organizations, and other interested parties filed four dozen friend-of-the-court briefs. That included the U.S. Justice Department, which sided with the pork producers. In the department’s amicus brief, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar argued that states do not have the power to “regulate out-of-state entities by banning products that pose no threat to public health or safety,” and that California shouldn’t have the power to determine what is considered “cruel treatment” in other states.
The Supreme Court narrowly rejected that argument, although the five prevailing justices issued multiple opinions and could not quite agree on why the plaintiffs’ claims were incorrect. In his opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch noted that past legal precedent suggests a state law should be struck down if its effect on interstate commerce outweighs its benefits to state residents. But this cost-benefit analysis, he argued, is problematically vague and requires courts to weigh citizens’ moral beliefs against companies’ financial benefits.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Amy Coney Barrett agreed. “California’s interest in eliminating allegedly inhumane products from its markets cannot be weighed on a scale opposite dollars and cents,” she wrote.
In one of several dissenting opinions, Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that such legal arguments could have unintended consequences.
“What if a state law prohibits the sale of goods produced by workers paid less than $20 per hour?” he wrote. “[Or] what if a state law prohibits ‘the retail sale of goods from producers that do not pay for employees’ birth control or abortions’ (or alternatively, that do pay for employees’ birth control or abortions)?”
The Court’s ruling was widely applauded by animal rights groups, which have been fighting for some form of animal welfare regulations for years.
“This important decision paves the way for the billions of animals raised and slaughtered for food every year in the U.S. to have their welfare taken into account, despite the total lack of federal laws protecting animals on factory farms,” said Laura Fox, director of the Farmed Animal Advocacy Clinic, in a statement on Thursday.
“In a legal system that still views animals as property, it’s remarkable that the highest court in the land has acknowledged that ‘[p]igs are not trucks or trains,’ ” she added. “It suggests that there may be a shift on the horizon towards legal recognition of animal interests.”
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the Humane Society of America. The correct name is the Human Society of the United States.