The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a California ballot measure protecting and regulating the rights of animals raised for food, a move that reaffirms states such as California have the right to pass legislation restricting what can be sold within the state and protecting the interest of their consumers.
The ruling in the case was 5-4, with Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, Elena Kagan and Sotomayor voting to uphold the measure.
Writing for the majority, Justice Gorsuch said that the state's voters backed the law, noting that while no state can pass laws to "discriminate purposefully against out-of-state economic interests," that's not what the pork producers who challenged the law were attempting to do.
"The pork producers do not suggest that California’s law offends this principle," Gorsuch wrote. "Instead, they invite us to fashion two new and more aggressive constitutional restrictions on the ability of States to regulate goods sold within their borders."
"We decline that invitation," he continued. "While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list."
Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson, dissented in part.
There are currently no federal laws that regulate the welfare of animals that are being raised and transported for food, which Kathy Hessler, an assistant dean for the Animal Legal Education Initiative at George Washington University Law School, calls “very problematic.”
“The wonderful thing about this case is that it means states can decide to take care of animal welfare, when the federal government is not taking care of animal welfare in the case of animals being produced for food," explained Hessler. “It used to be [that there were] some question about whether that was the purview of the federal government, whether states could intervene when the feds hadn't. That's super clear now.”
“The nice thing is this case encapsulates the ability of the states to protect animals and their welfare for their own sake. But in this case, it's connected to consumers. So when we don't protect animal welfare, we have poor outcomes for consumers. And so that link is now established in the law.”
The case centered around California's Proposition 12, which voters passed in 2018, which said that pork sold in the state needs to come from pigs whose mothers were raised with at least 24 square feet of space, including the ability to lie down and turn around. That rules out the confined "gestation crates," metal enclosures that are common in the pork industry.
Two industry groups, the Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation, sued over the proposition. They say that while Californians consume 13% of the pork eaten in the United States, nearly 100% of it comes from hogs raised outside the state, primarily where the industry is concentrated in the Midwest and North Carolina.
The vast majority of sows, meanwhile, aren't raised under conditions that would meet Proposition 12's standards.
The case also called into question the Constitution’s Dormant Commerce Clause, which prohibits unreasonable restrictions on the flow of products between states. Hessler says this decision confirms state’s ability to regulate for themselves.
There were some concerns when the court decided to hear the case, that the decision could be far reaching, such as calling into question California’s ability to establish its own emissions guidelines for vehicles sold in the state.
“In order to attack a state's legislation, you're going to have to prove that it's discriminatory, or you're gonna have to prove some significant other issues that weren't proven in this case,” Hessler said. “Fundamentally, there's not this huge shift that folks were a little bit worried that the Supreme Court had taken this case [would] allow to happen.”
California's Proposition 12 also covers other animals. It says egg-laying hens and calves being raised for veal need to be raised in conditions in which they have enough room to lie down, stand up and turn around freely, though those parts of the law weren’t at issue in the case.