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Daniels faculty member shares details on the larger impacts of the case

One of the most potentially significant cases for U.S. business in the Supreme Court’s new term is the National Pork Producers Council’s (NPPC) lawsuit against the State of California, challenging its humane animal practices law on Constitutional grounds.

The case in question, while primarily focused on the treatment of pigs by pork farmers, could have larger legal impacts on the importation of farm products around the country.

The Daniels newsroom spoke with Don Mayer, professor of the practice in the Department of Business Ethics and Legal Studies, to learn more about the significance of the case and how it might impact businesses in the U.S. moving forward.

What is the California law that the National Pork Producers Council objects to as unconstitutional?

Over many years, animal welfare activists have questioned industrial farm production methods in the U.S., such as those that involve chickens in “coops” that give them little or no room to move, or female pigs (sows) that are confined in gestation crates that give them no opportunity to move about freely or wallow in mud, as pigs are naturally inclined to do.

In 2021, California voters approved Proposition 12, which forbids farm owners and operators in California from “knowingly confining” calves raised for veal or breeding pigs or egg-laying hens “in a cruel manner.” An animal is considered confined in a “cruel manner” if it is prevented “from lying down, standing up, fully extending [its] limbs or turning around freely.” The law also prohibits any “business owner or operator” from selling “within the state” any meat that the person “knows or should know is the meat of a covered animal who was confined in a cruel manner or is the meat of immediate offspring of a covered animal who was confined in a cruel manner.”

What is the NPPC’s argument that the law is unconstitutional?

The law impacts pork farmers and wholesalers outside of California. Although not directly subject to the requirements of the law, they cannot sell their products in California without proper certification that their pigs have been humanely raised. This is discriminatory, they argue, and a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s “dormant” commerce clause. When Congress has not used its power to regulate commerce nationally, states may legislate, but only if their laws are non-discriminatory and do not impose an “undue burden” on interstate commerce. The NPPC is basically arguing that the California law puts an “undue burden” on interstate commerce and that it impermissibly imposes California’s standards on other states.

How did the lower courts rule, and why?

The federal district court and the federal appellate courts rejected the NPPC’s arguments. The Circuit Court of Appeals held that the NPPC failed to show that California’s law had an “impermissible extraterritorial effect.” The appellate court recognized that a state law could extend its influence “impermissibly” to other states, but noted that prior cases found violations of the dormant commerce clause usually involved state laws that dictated prices to out-of-state sources. (The courts call these “price control and price affirmation statutes.”) Also, the appellate court concluded that the California law did not “directly regulate” out-of-state conduct and that the law did not impose burdens that were excessive in comparison to the local, California benefits.

How is the Supreme Court likely to rule in this case?

In oral arguments in October, the justices seemed somewhat skeptical of the NPPC’s arguments. Still, four justices voted to hear the case, indicating that at least some of them thought the NPPC’s argument was important enough to take seriously. Over the past 30 years, the emerging “conservative” majority on the court has emphasized its own notions of “federalism”—the idea that states retain considerable power in the federal system, whenever the federal government’s legislation has not pre-empted the traditional powers of states to pass laws for the health, safety, welfare or education of its citizens. At the same time, the court’s rulings also tend to be “pro-business,” meaning that major corporate players in the national economy often get what they want from the court’s rulings.

If the California law is set aside as unconstitutional, how would that affect the economy and U.S. businesses in general?

If the California law is set aside as unconstitutional, it would mean that no state could enforce restrictions against the importation of farm products that are “raised” in ways that may be morally or aesthetically objectionable. Or, if the ruling favors the NPPC, it may be on the narrow grounds that California would have to show greater “benefits” to its economy than the “burdens” it imposes on the national pork industry. A decision is expected before June 2023. You can follow the progress of this case at the SCOTUS blog.