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California’s Proposition 12 in the Supreme Court

November 17, 2022
Time to read: 2 minutes

In 2018, California voters passed Proposition 12, the Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act. Prop 12 imposes requirements for minimum floorspace for egg-laying hens, calves, and sows (breeding pigs) on factory farms. Pork products derived from the offspring of sows confined in gestation crates, or with less than 24 square feet of usable floorspace per animal, may not be sold in California. 

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In October 2022, having lost in the lower courts, the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation brought their challenge to the US Supreme Court, arguing that “California wants to change farming methods everywhere.” And given California’s dominant role in the US economy, Prop 12’s minimum space requirements could impact the way farmed animals are housed nationwide. Some 26 states, 30 major business interests, and the Biden Justice Department joined NPPC in challenging Prop 12. 

What is the dormant Commerce Clause, and why is it central to this case?

The Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the US Constitution) gives Congress the power to regulate interstate Commerce. According to the doctrine known as the dormant Commerce Clause, states cannot pass laws burdening interstate commerce. An individual state cannot enact a law that conditions in-state sales on out-of-state producers following certain production methods unless the benefit to the state outweighs the burden on the producers. 

The Court will need to determine whether or not California voters’ moral objections to animal cruelty should be a factor in their analysis of the case. Several justices are concerned that If California prevails, what other states’ moral convictions would follow? For example, that producers are or are not unionized, that they do or do not provide abortion care, etc.

What are the possible outcomes?

The Court could decide to uphold Prop 12, perhaps inviting other states to impose their moral views on out-of-state producers; rule Prop 12 unconstitutional, since it burdens interstate commerce in a significant way and there is no demonstrable local benefit; or remand the case back to a lower court for further fact-finding. A decision is expected in the coming year.

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