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No Race Issues in California Shark Fin Ban

(CN) - Chinese-American groups reached a legal dead-end this week when a federal judge dismissed their challenge to California's ban on the sale and possession of shark fins.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick ruled that the Shark Fin Law was not written in a way that violates the constitutional rights of Chinese-Americans, as he ordered the case dismissed before it could go to trial.

"The plaintiffs are mistaken," Orrick wrote Tuesday. "Nothing in the Shark Fin Law's text discriminates on the basis of race, ethnicity, cultural background, or national origin. Rather, it is a broadly applicable law that prohibits the possession or sale of shark fin."

The Chinatown Neighborhood Association and Asian Americans for Political Advancement sued the state in 2012, saying the recently passed law singled out a Chinese custom for persecution. Shark fin soup is a cultural delicacy and a centerpiece in Chinese celebrations that serves as a "traditional symbol of respect, honor and appreciation," their suit said.

The two groups wanted an injunction on the law's enactment, but U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton refused such relief last year, finding that the groups "made no showing that any member of the Legislature intended to 'target' Chinese-Americans."

Her order noted how only a small percentage of Chinese-Americans regularly eat shark fin soup, and that roughly half the Chinese-American population actually supports the law.

A three-judge panel with the 9th Circuit declined to overturn Hamilton in an unpublished ruling.

"The District Court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Chinatown failed to prove a likelihood of irreparable harm," the court said. "Chinatown offered only evidence suggesting that business owners would suffer some economic harm from operation of the Shark Fin Law."

California's law also appears facially neutral, with no evidence that legislators intended all along "to discriminate against Chinese Americans rather than to accomplish the Law's stated humanitarian, conservationist, and health goals," the appellate judges added.

Orrick echoed those earlier rulings when the case fell to his docket on remand.

The law does not violate constitutional guarantees to equal protection, he said. "Every person in California is subject to the law," the 24-page ruling states. "As the Ninth Circuit held, the law 'is facially neutral.'"

Orrick added: "People of Chinese origin or culture undoubtedly overwhelmingly comprise the market for shark fin. However, a law is not unconstitutional simply because it has a racially disparate impact."

The Shark Fin Law, codified as Sections 2021 and 2021.5 of California Fish and Game Code, became effective in 2012 with the purported aim of promoting shark conservation and health interests.

The law's authors pointed to the fact that shark finning, a practice in which sharks are caught, their fins cut off, and the carcasses dumped back into the water, causes tens of millions of sharks to die each year.

Though the law also spoke of health concerns related to human ingestion of mercury-filled shark fin, Chinese-American groups claimed that the law was a pretext to discriminate against them.

They cited statements that Assemblyman Paul Fong made while arguing for the ban as proof of bias.

"The Chinese culture used to promote foot binding on women" and "[j]ust like it was unhealthy to bind women's feet, this practice needs to end," said Fong, who is Chinese-American.

In Monday's order, however, Orrick found the groups had not done enough to show that racial animus drove legislators to ban shark fin.

He said Fong's statements did "not evince racial motivation in sponsoring the Shark Fin Law."

"Rather, the quotes say nothing more than that certain acts that were once permitted should now be stopped in light of contemporary circumstances and standards," the ruling states. "That the example used is drawn from Chinese history does not plausibly suggest discriminatory purpose."

Orrick also dispatched claims that the ban on shark fin impedes interstate commerce, saying "there is nothing in the statute that privileges California commerce over non-California commerce."

Federal law does not pre-empts California's ban either, the court ruled.

"The purpose of the federal shark fin law is to eliminate shark finning," Orrick wrote. "The Shark Fin Law is consistent with this purpose."

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