U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with pork industry challenge to California law

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Oct 11 (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices debated on Tuesday whether upholding a California law banning the sale of pork from pigs kept in tightly confined spaces would spur states to pass laws imposing their political or moral opinions outside their borders.

The judges heard arguments in an appeal by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation of a lower court’s decision to dismiss their lawsuit seeking to strike down the animal welfare measure. It was approved by voters as a 2018 ballot initiative called Proposition 12 to ban sales in California of pork, veal and eggs from animals whose confinement did not meet certain minimum space requirements.

Judges seemed torn about whether the law went too far in forcing farmers in other states to change their practices in order to sell pork in the most populous US state. Questions from some judges suggested the court could allow a hog industry-backed lawsuit challenging the law to proceed in lower courts rather than rule on its constitutionality.

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Judges across the ideological spectrum seemed concerned that a ruling in favor of California could encourage more states to pass moral or ideological sales laws that affect national commerce, fostering interstate disputes. They raised the possibility of states restricting sales from outside companies that do not conform to policy preferences in areas such as immigration, organized labor and health care.

“Many political disputes can be incorporated into laws like yours,” liberal Justice Elena Kagan told California Solicitor General Michael Mongan, who was defending the measure.

Timothy Bishop, attorney for both groups, argued the measure violated a provision of the US Constitution known as the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce.

“This is an extraterritorial regulation that conditions pork sales to out-of-state farmers who adopt California’s preferred farming methods without any valid safety reason,” Bishop said, noting that 99.9% of Californian pork comes from elsewhere.

Some judges noted that California law did not regulate out-of-state farms themselves, but products sold within its own borders and questioned why the state was not allowed to do so. while he also possessed the power to outright ban sales.

“As I read California law, these are products sold in California,” conservative judge Clarence Thomas said. “Unlike some of the cases you cite, it’s not about reaching out and regulating something across state lines or regulating prices.”

Liberal Judge Sonia Sotomayor said that while California is a huge market, “no one is forcing them to sell in California.” Farmers could continue to sell pork elsewhere that did not meet California standards, Sotomayor added.

“SUBSTANTIAL IMPACT”

But liberal Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson said the court must accept that the California law will have a “substantial impact on the functioning of this market”.

Noting that America is already divided, Kagan wondered if keeping the measure would encourage states to “constantly go at each other’s throats” by passing laws affecting outside businesses.

Conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett asked, “Could California pass a law saying we won’t buy pork from companies that don’t require all of their employees to be vaccinated or from companies that don’t fund the gender affirmation surgery?

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito raised the possibility of a pork-producing state adopting regulations governing the production of agricultural products sourced almost exclusively from California.

A decision is due at the end of June.

Animal rights groups have said some pork producers confine mother pigs to cages so small the animals cannot turn around for most of their lives. The pig industry has said the size of cages used on pig farms is humane and necessary for animal safety.

Proposition 12 sets the space requirement for breeding pigs, or sows, at 24 square feet (2.2 square meters). The current industry standard is between 14 and 20 square feet (1.3 to 1.9 square meters), according to a 2021 report by Dutch banking and financial services company Rabobank.

The Supreme Court took up the case after the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, upheld a district court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit. President Joe Biden’s administration has sided with pork producers, saying states cannot ban products that pose no threat to public health or safety because of philosophical objections.

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Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Will Dunham

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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