Supreme Court Upholds California’s Proposition 12 Pork Ban

On May 11, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld California’s Proposition 12, finding in a divided, 5-4 opinion, that it did not violate the Interstate Commerce. 

Proposition 12 is a farm animal confinement ballot initiative passed in 2018, by a 62 percent vote. Among other animal welfare measures, it bans the same of Pork in California from farms that confine pregnant pigs in gestation crates.  The law requires that veal calves, breeding pigs, and egg-laying hens to be housed in systems that comply with specific standards for freedom of movement, cage-free design, and specified minimum floor space. The law and accompanying regulations also prohibit businesses from knowingly engaging in the sale of shell eggs, liquid eggs, whole pork meat or whole veal meat from animals housed in a “cruel manner.”

Plaintiffs National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation filed the lawsuit on behalf of their members and argued that Proposition 12 was unconstitutional because it impermissibly burdened interstate commerce. They argued that because California imports most of its pork from other states, Proposition 12 disproportionately imposed the burden of complying with these regulations on out-of-state.

The Court upheld the Ninth Circuit and district court’s dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim as a matter of law. The majority opinion by Justice Gorsuch noted that companies that choose to sell products in other states must comply with the laws of those states. While states may not use laws to purposefully discriminate against out-of-state businesses or economic interests, the court did not hold Proposition 12 to have that intention. The majority also found that the allegations in the complaint were insufficient as a matter of law to demonstrate a substantial burden on interstate commerce.

However, the justices fractured on several key questions. Notably, the five justices in the majority could not agree on the theory under which Proposition 12 was constitutional.  The precedential impact of the opinion is unclear because  now that Proposition 12 has been upheld, the standards of cage sizes it imposes are likely to become industry standard for all producers that want to sell their products in California. Plaintiffs alleged that the economic impact of the law on the pork industry would be hundreds of millions of dollars.  The impact of the Supreme Court decision on the restaurant industry remains to be seen.