(Bloomberg) — The US Supreme Court upheld California’s new humane-pork law, rejecting an industry challenge in a ruling buttressing the power of states to impose rules that have a broad economic impact on other parts of the country.
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The ruling could force pork producers to implement costly changes to keep selling in the country’s most populous state. The industry argued unsuccessfully that California is violating the Constitution by regulating commerce outside its borders.
Writing for the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the pork industry “would have us cast aside caution for boldness” by intervening where Congress had declined to act. He said producers “have failed — repeatedly — to persuade Congress to use its express Commerce Clause authority to adopt a uniform rule for pork production.”
The law, approved through a 2018 ballot initiative, bans the sale of pork in California unless pregnant pigs are allowed at least 24 square feet (2.2 square meters) of space. Industry groups say the practical effect is to force out-of-state producers to make costly changes. California imports more than 99% of the pork it consumes.
“We are very disappointed,” said Scott Hays, president of the National Pork Producers Council, which led the challenge to the law. “Allowing state overreach will increase prices for consumers and drive small farms out of business, leading to more consolidation.”
The law, known as Proposition 12, “will have a staggering impact on pork farmers, consumers, and interstate commerce as a whole,” Beth Milito, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business’s Small Business Legal Center, said in an emailed statement. “Today’s decision sets a dangerous precedent, and small businesses will bear the consequences.”
Animal-rights groups hailed the ruling.
“We’re delighted that the Supreme Court has upheld California Proposition 12 – the nation’s strongest farm animal welfare law – and made clear that preventing animal cruelty and protecting public health are core functions of our state governments,” Kitty Block, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said in an emailed statement.
No Ideological Divide
The National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation contended the measure violates the so-called dormant commerce clause, a legal doctrine that says the US Constitution limits the power of states to regulate commerce outside their borders without congressional authorization.
The ruling cut across the court’s left-right divide. Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett joined Gorsuch in voting to toss out the lawsuit.
The majority splintered in some of its reasoning. Gorsuch, Thomas, Sotomayor and Kagan said the producers hadn’t shown the measure would impose a substantial burden on interstate commerce. Barrett disagreed with that assessment but said courts weren’t capable of weighing California’s moral judgments against the economic costs of the law.
Four justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson — said they would have kicked the case back to a federal appeals court for more scrutiny. Writing for the group, Roberts said the challengers “plausibly allege a substantial burden on interstate commerce.”
The industry argued that a ruling for California would pit states against one another, letting them impose their own moral and ideological demands on companies elsewhere before products could be sold.
The Biden administration took the pork producers’ side. The pharmaceutical industry also backed the pork lobby, saying the case could affect litigation over state laws that seek to regulate the nationwide list prices of drugs.
California said the dormant commerce clause guards against economic protectionism, not against neutral restrictions on in-state sales. The state accused the industry of overstating the impact of the law, arguing that pork producers already segregate supply chains to sell products labeled as “antibiotic-free” and “crate-free.”
The case is National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, 21-468.
–With assistance from Deena Shanker and Michael Hirtzer.
(Updates with reaction starting in fifth paragraph, details on breakdown starting in ninth.)
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