Supreme Court upholds California Prop 12

Court rejects NPPC, AFBF Commerce Clause challenge as insufficiently pled.

5 Min Read

The U.S Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the National Pork Producers Council and American Farm Bureau Federation challenging California’s controversial Proposition 12. That law, which passed in 2018, requires pork meat sold in the state to come from pigs born to a sow housed in at least a 24-square-foot-pen.

In response to the law, the NPPC and AFBF filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn Proposition 12. They claim it violates the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce. After the case was thrown out by a lower court, they appealed to the Supreme Court.

“We are very disappointed with the Supreme Court’s opinion,” NPPC President Scott Hays said in a statement release shortly after the ruling. “Allowing state overreach will increase prices for consumers and drive small farms out of business, leading to more consolidation. We are still evaluating the Court’s full opinion to understand all the implications. NPPC will continue to fight for our nation’s pork farmers and American families against misguided regulations.”

According to opponents, Proposition 12 effectively forces producers from other states to adhere to California law. That state consumes approximately 15% of the pork produced in the country, importing nearly all of it.

Various agriculture groups, food and beverage industry advocates, and President Biden have all stated their opposition to the California law. They say it will lead to unnecessary burdens for pork producers and higher prices across the country for pork products.

Iowa Pork Producers President Trish Cook was among many pork producers frustrated with the Court’s ruling. She says allowing states to regulate commerce beyond their boundaries is a bad precedent.

“Consumers, especially low-income ones who rely on affordable nutritious pork to feed their families, will ultimately suffer due to higher food prices,” Cook says. “Some small and medium-sized producers who are already dealing with high feed costs and inflation, will also sadly go out of business as they struggle to comply.”

Law may still be open to challenges

In his majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that those who choose to sell products in various states must normally comply with the laws for those states. He added the responsibly of regulating the pork industry falls on Congress. Otherwise, the court does not have the authority to overturn a state law.

"While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list," Gorsuch said.

Still, Gorsuch seemed to leave the door open to future challenges. While rejecting the argument that Prop 12 violated the Commerce Clause, he noted that it potentially calls into question other constitutional provisions including the Import-Export Clause, the Privileges and Immunities Clause, and the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

“I express no view on whether such an argument ultimately would succeed,” Gorsuch said. “But the question deserves further examination in a future case.”

Prop 12 supporters applaud ruling

Of course, not everyone was disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decisions. When Prop 12 was on the ballot in Nov. 2018, 63% of California voters approved the measure. As the court’s announcement was being made, representatives from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals celebrated in front of the court while calling for even stronger action against meat producers.

Mercy for Animals was one of several organizations that pushed for Proposition 12’s passage. Shortly before the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case last October, it released undercover footage of what it considers to be cruel treatment of farm pigs. AJ Albrecht, the organization’s managing director for the U.S. and Canada, said she was “overjoyed” by the court’s decision.

“The outcome of this case supports the will of California voters and rejects the industry’s baseless arguments against Proposition 12,” Albrecht said. “Today we celebrate that in the near future, countless pigs, calves, and hens will no longer needlessly suffer the most extreme forms of confinement.”

Farm Action, which bills itself as a farmer-led organization fighting agriculture corporate monopolies, also cheered the decision. It says that Prop 12 created a tremendous market opportunity for independent farmers by setting standards for food sold in California. Many of its members either don’t use or have already transitioned away from the small pens Proposition 12 prohibits.

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court preserves states’ rights to protect the interests of their own citizens, and creates markets for America’s independent hog farmers,” Farm Action President Joe Maxwell says. “Proposition 12 is a lifeline for farmers working to feed their communities and stay in business.”

Congressional action looming

The Supreme Court may not be the last word on Proposition 12. In 2021, Sens. Roger Marshall, R- Kan., Chuck Grassley, R- Iowa, Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, John Cornyn, R- Texas, and Cindy Hyde-Smith, R- Miss., introduced legislation to stop state and local governments from passing laws affecting production and manufacturing standards in other states. The bill didn’t make it out of committee before Congress adjourned. Marshall says he plans to re-introduce it this session.

“I’m disappointed the Supreme Court did not strike down California’s Proposition 12,” Marshall said. “We simply can’t allow radical state laws to dictate the agricultural practices of the rest of the nation, especially in a way that will only increase food costs for the food insecure and drive farmers and ranchers out of business. I will be re-introducing my Exposing Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act to prohibit state and local governments from interfering with the production or manufacture of agricultural products in other states.”

About the Author(s)

Joshua Baethge

Policy editor, Farm Progress

Joshua Baethge covers a wide range of government issues affecting agriculture. Before joining Farm Progress, he spent 10 years as a news and feature reporter in Texas. During that time, he covered multiple state and local government entities, while also writing about real estate, nightlife, culture and whatever else was the news of the day.

Baethge earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Texas. In his free time, he enjoys going to concerts, discovering new restaurants, finding excuses to be outside and traveling as much as possible. He is based in the Dallas area where he lives with his wife and two kids.

Krissa Welshans

Livestock Editor

Krissa Welshans grew up on a crop farm and cow-calf operation in Marlette, Michigan. Welshans earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Michigan State University and master’s degree in public policy from New England College. She and her husband Brock run a show cattle operation in Henrietta, Texas, where they reside with their son, Wynn.

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