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Strict pig treatment rules in California win high court approval 

The case asked if a California law governing pork production caused too much chaos outside state lines. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court allowed a California law governing pork standards to move forward on Thursday despite industry claims over its broad reach. 

“Companies that choose to sell products in various States must normally comply with the laws of those various states,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the court's lead opinion

At issue in the case was California’s Proposition 12, which was passed in 2018 to prevent animal cruelty and protect the health and safety of California consumers. Among its standards for pork sold in the state, Prop 12 mandates that pork meat must come from pigs born to a sow housed in a 24-square-foot pen, big enough that the animal room can turn around without touching the enclosure. 

The problem is California imports the majority of its pork meat, leaving producers outside of California’s borders to comply with a law they did not pass. The pork producers claim that the nation’s entire pork production system would have to be reconstructed to comply with California’s law since it is impossible to determine where meat might end its journey. 

In 2019, the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation sued California. A panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the case before the high court intervened

Gorsuch emphasized that Congress can use its authority to regulate pork just like other products, but it had not done so here. 

“Despite the persistent efforts of certain pork producers, Congress has yet to adopt any statute that might displace Proposition 12 or laws regulating pork production in other States,” Gorsuch wrote. 

If the pork producers' claims of massive disruptions to the pork industry are true, Gorsuch continued, then the industry should have turned to lawmakers, not the court, to solve this problem. 

“That body is better equipped than this Court to identify and assess all the pertinent economic and political interests at play across the country,” Gorsuch wrote. “And that body is certainly better positioned to claim democratic support for any policy choice it may make.” 

Without an effort to sway lawmakers of their plight, Gorsuch says the pork producers may have been trying to find an easier solution to their problem. 

“And with that history in mind, it is hard not to wonder whether petitioners have ventured here only because winning a majority of a handful of judges may seem easier than marshaling a majority of elected representatives across the street,” Gorsuch wrote. 

The pork producers' claim rests on the dormant Commerce Clause. Congress uses the Commerce Clause to regulate interstate commerce, but that authority is not absolute. This leaves states to also have some authority to pass laws impacting interstate commerce. But the states’ authority isn’t absolute either. The dormant Commerce Clause stymies states from putting excessive burdens on interstate commerce. 

Thursday’s ruling sidesteps any statement on the dormant Commerce Clause. Gorsuch said the court did not need to engage in competing arguments concerning the doctrine to decide this case, and even if they did, the pork producers would still have a tough case to prove.

“They do not allege that California’s law seeks to advantage in-state firms or disadvantage out-of-state rivals,” Gorsuch wrote. “In fact, petitioners disavow any discrimination-based claim, conceding that Proposition 12 imposes the same burdens on in-state pork producers that it imposes on out-of-state ones. As petitioners put it, ‘the dormant Commerce Clause ... bar on protectionist state statutes that discriminate against interstate commerce ... is not in issue here.’”

California contends that Prop 12 isn’t that different than labeling laws or safety and quality standards. The state acknowledged that producers from out of state may have to increase prices to comply with the law but argued that California voters were informed of that consequence when they voted on the issue. 


When the justices heard arguments in the case in October, they struggled to find a balance between the sovereignty of states and their role in a connected nation. There was concern from some justices that while the case concerns pork meat, the ruling could reach much further in a divided nation. 

The majority’s ruling was fractured along with the understanding of the balancing test in Pike v. Bruce Church Inc. The test states laws that support the public interest and affect interstate commerce can be upheld if their burden on commerce is not excessive in relation to their benefits. Justices Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett joined Gorsuch in finding that the test proposed by the pork producers is one no court should decide. They said that the pork producers want the court to strike down state laws based on their own assessments of costs and benefits.

“That we can hardly do,” Gorsuch wrote. “Whatever other judicial authorities the Commerce Clause may imply, that kind of freewheeling power is not among them.”

Apart from Gorsuch’s majority ruling, there were a slew of concurring and dissenting opinions. The five in the majority reached no holding on Pike, agreeing only that California’s law should be upheld. In contrast, the four justices in dissent felt California’s law should have been struck down under the precedent.

In a separate opinion where they affirmed the court's judgment, Justice Elena Kagan joined Justice Sonia Sotomayor in noting that the pork producers simply did not meet the standards set out in Pike. They did split with Gorsuch on whether the pork producers were asking for a reworking of the Pike standard.

“Alleging a substantial burden on interstate commerce is a threshold requirement that plaintiffs must satisfy before courts need even engage in Pike’s balancing and tailoring analyses,” Sotomayor wrote. “Because petitioners have not done so, they fail to state a Pike claim.”

Gorsuch’s Pike analysis drew a dissent meanwhile from Chief Justice John Roberts — joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Roberts said he did not think the pork producers failed on Pike because of their specific claim, but because the Ninth Circuit misapplied the justices’ precedent.

“I would find that petitioners’ have plausibly alleged a substantial burden against interstate commerce, and would therefore vacate the judgment and remand the case for the court below to decide whether petitioners have stated a claim under Pike,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts notes the marketwide consequences that the pork producers say California’s rule will cause.

“But, as I read it, the complaint alleges more than simply an increase in ‘compliance costs,’ unless such costs are defined to include all the fallout from a challenged regulatory regime,” Roberts wrote. “Petitioners identify broader, market-wide consequences of compliance — economic harms that our precedents have recognized can amount to a burden on interstate commerce.”

The farmer-led group Farm Action praised Thursday’s ruling, arguing it protected state’s rights.

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court preserves states’ rights to protect the interests of their own citizens, and creates markets for America’s independent hog farmers,” Joe Maxwell, president of Farm Action and Missouri hog farmer, said in a statement. “Proposition 12 is a lifeline for farmers working to feed their communities and stay in business.”

Animal rights groups similarly celebrated the justices’ ruling. The groups said upholding California’s law promotes the humane treatment of animals and encourages food safety values.

“It is a loss for hog factory farmers and a win for the vast majority of Americans who want to know that animals raised for food were not immobilized and otherwise tormented in production,” Wayne Pacelle, president of the Animal Wellness Action and the Center for the Humane Economy, wrote in a statement. Pacelle helped launch Prop 12 in 2017.

Timothy Bishop, an attorney with Mayer Brown representing the pork producers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling, nor did the California Department of Justice.

Prop 12 was expected to be implemented by the start of 2022 but has been paused by litigation. The justices' ruling is expected to also impact laws in Massachusetts that were also put on hold.

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Categories / Appeals, Business, Consumers, Government, Regional

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