California farm animal welfare law heads to the Supreme Court

By:Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law Tuesday, October 04th, 2022
United States Supreme Court Building

The Supreme Court of the United States takes on a second important case for agriculture next week when it hears arguments in National Pork Producers v Ross.  The Court opened its new term yesterday with a well-known case about the Clean Water Act and EPA authority over wetlands, Sackett v EPA.  In National Pork Producers, the Court will hear challenges to California’s Proposition 12, a livestock housing standards law.

Proposition 12.  Voters in California approved the Proposition 12 ballot measure in 2018, but the law’s impact spreads beyond California’s borders.  The law sets living space standards for sows, egg-layers, and veal calves—sows must have 24 square feet or more of space, egg-laying hens require at least 144 square inches, and veal calves must have at least 43 square feet.  Commonly used gestation crates for sows and battery cages for hens would not meet California’s space standards.  And Proposition 12 also prohibits the sale of products from any animal whose housing does not comply with the living space requirements. That prohibition doesn’t apply just to products of animals raised in California, but to products of animals raised anywhere and sold in California. Selling pork, eggs, or veal from animals not raised according to the standards is a crime that could result in fines, jail sentences, and civil actions.

Challenges to Proposition 12.  The out-of-state application of Proposition 12 immediately raised concerns across the United States.  Several lawsuits followed, with the primary argument being that Proposition 12 violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which grants Congress the authority “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.”  The Supreme Court has long determined that implicit in the Commerce Clause is a restriction on the ability of states to pass legislation that discriminates against or excessively burdens interstate commerce, referred to as the “dormant Commerce Clause.”  Opponents of Proposition 12 argue that California has burdened interstate commerce by prohibiting sales of products within the state from out-of-state livestock producers who do not comply with the California state law for animal housing. 

Federal courts disagreed with the commerce clause argument in an earlier challenge to Proposition 12, North American Meat Institute v Becerra, for which the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) declined review.  Another case, Iowa Pork Producers v Bonta, also alleged Commerce Clause violations along with several other constitutional challenges, and that case is now on appeal after being dismissed by a federal district court in California. 

A federal district court also dismissed the current National Pork Producers case, presented again on a Commerce Clause claim.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that dismissal while agreeing that the law would “require pervasive changes to the pork production nationwide.”  The court concluded, however, that National Pork Producers had not stated a constitutional claim by alleging that Proposition 12 discriminates against out-of-state interests.  Absent a showing of discrimination, “a state law may require out-of-state producers to meet burdensome requirements in order to sell their products in the state without violating the dormant Commerce Clause.”  As long as the only conduct regulated by the law is conduct within California, the court explained, significant upstream effects beyond California would not violate the Commerce Clause.  Last April, the Supreme Court accepted the request to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

The SCOTUS review.   National Pork Producers, joined by the American Farm Bureau Federation, raises two questions in the current case before SCOTUS.  The first is whether the economic effects outside of California that require pervasive changes to an integrated nationwide industry state a violation of the dormant Commerce Clause.  The second question is whether Proposition 12 states a Commerce Clause claim according to an earlier SCOTUS decision in Pike v. Bruce Church, which held that even when a law doesn’t discriminate on its face against interstate commerce, the law is not permissible if its burdens greatly exceed the benefits to local commerce.

The petitioners argue that Proposition 12 is “impermissibly extraterritorial” because 99.87% of all pork sold in California comes from producers outside of the state.  They claim that the practical effect of Proposition 12 is to regulate out-of-state commerce and require significant and costly changes to sow housing across the country.  Proposition 12 also fails the Pike v Bruce Church balancing test because its "false human health rationale and philosophical preferences about conduct outside of California are outweighed by the “wrenching effect” the law has on interstate commerce."

On the opposite side, California describes the law's impact as having only a “ripple effect” both within and outside of California rather than creating an impermissible extraterritorial effect.  An upstream, practical effect, California argues, is not sufficient to render a state law invalid under the Commerce Clause.  Claiming that the petitioners overstate the economic effects of the law, the State argues that it would not be impossible to segregate animals to meet California requirements while continuing housing requirements for other markets.  California argues that “there is nothing illegitimate or insubstantial about the voters’ expressed purpose of addressing extreme methods of farm animal confinement and potential threats to the health and safety of California consumers.” 

Implications:  who should control farm animal welfare standards?  National Pork Producers and California’s Proposition 12 raise a critical question about the future of farm animal welfare standards.  Should such standards be determined on a state-by-state basis, or should there be a uniform federal standard?  While the federal Animal Welfare Act does establish animal care standards, it does not apply to farm animal care.  In the absence of a federal law for farm animals, eight states have joined California in addressing farm animal housing standards.  Ohio is one of them.  Ohio’s Livestock Care Standards for swine housing will prohibit the use of sow gestation crates after December 31, 2025, except in special circumstances.  Unlike California, however, Ohio’s law does not prohibit retail sales from animals that aren’t housed according to the state standards.  Only California and Massachusetts tie housing standards compliance to retail product sales and criminal penalties, raising the issue of controlling producers beyond the state’s borders.  A federal law, on the other hand, would equally affect all producers across the country and could preempt restrictions on sales such as in Proposition 12, but would place control over farm animal care practices in the hands of the federal government.  Perhaps we’ll more carefully analyze the federal-state question after SCOTUS issues its decision in National Pork Producers, expected early next year.

The Supreme Court will hear the oral arguments in National Pork Producers v Ross at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, October 11.   Live audio will be available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/.