The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • National Pork Producers Council v. Ross:
    U.S. Supreme Court Upholds California Animal Welfare Law

  • May 31st, 2023 — by Samantha Hamilton — Category: Miscellaneous

  • On May 11th, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion upholding a controversial California animal rights law adopted in 2018. The law, known as Proposition 12, prohibits the sale in California of whole pork products by a seller who knows or should know that the meat came from a breeding pig or their offspring that was “confined in a cruel manner.”1 Confinement is defined as “cruel” where the breeding pig has less than 24 square feet of space or cannot lie down, stand up, fully extend limbs, and turn around freely.2 Nearly 63% of California voters voted in favor of Proposition 12, despite “spirited debate” surrounding the costs and benefits of the requirements imposed on pork producers selling in the state.3 In dismissing the challenges to Proposition 12, the Supreme Court constrained its own authority to strike down as unconstitutional state laws that have broad impacts on out-of-state actors who wish to sell their goods within that state.

    Following Proposition 12’s adoption, two industry organizations, the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation, filed a lawsuit on behalf of their members, claiming Proposition 12 violated the Dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.4 The Dormant Commerce Clause is the negative implication of the Commerce Clause, and acts as a prohibition “against states passing legislation that discriminates against or excessively burdens interstate commerce.”5 Both the California district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case, holding that the two organizations failed to state a claim. The Supreme Court accepted the case and ultimately agreed with the lower courts, affirming the case’s dismissal.6

    In a fractured 5-4 opinion, Justice Gorsuch rejected the two arguments made by the organizations. Their first argument, according to Justice Gorsuch, interpreted existing case law to create an “extraterritoriality doctrine” which would prohibit enforcement of state laws which are not purposely discriminatory but have the “practical effect of controlling commerce outside the State[.]”7 In this case, because California imports most of its pork from out-of-state producers, the organizations argued that Proposition 12’s impacts would mostly be felt by entities outside the state. The Court refused to adopt the organizations’ arguments, concluding it would be an overreach of the Court’s authority to question state laws that touch interstate commerce.8 The second argument asked the Court to find Proposition 12 unconstitutional under a balancing test between the costs to pork producers and the benefits to California of adopting Proposition 12. While the justices were fractured as to the reasoning behind rejecting this second argument, they did reject it, and the case was dismissed.9

    This case showed a self-limitation by the Justices regarding the Supreme Court’s authority to interfere with state laws that may place a burden on out-of-state sellers. While the present case centered around pork, the logic could apply to future state laws regulating other industries such as aquaculture or aquarium sales. For now, it seems the Supreme Court agrees that if a seller wants to sell their product within a particular state, they are bound to follow the laws of that state.

    1Cal. Healthy & Safety Code Ann. § 25990(b)(2); Cal. Code Regs. tit. 3 § 1322.1(a).

    2Cal. Healthy & Safety Code Ann. § 25991(e)(1)., California Proposition 12, Farm Animal Confinement Initiative (2018) (last visited May 23, 2023), & National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, 598 U. S. ___, 3 (2023).

    4Nat'l Pork Producers Council v. Ross, 456 F. Supp. 3d 1201 (S.D. Cal. 2020), aff'd, 6 F.4th 1021 (9th Cir. 2021), aff'd, No. 21-468, 2023 WL 3356528 (U.S. May 11, 2023).

    5Legal Information Institute, Commerce Clause, Cornell Law School (last updated July 2022).

    6National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, 598 U. S. ___ (2023).

    7Id. at 9.

    8Id. at 14.

    9National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, 598 U. S. ___ (2023).

  • Samantha Hamilton
    NSGLC Blog Guest Author

Stay Current with
Our Publications

Subscribe today to our free
quarterly publication, The SandBar
— and to our monthly newsletter,
the Ocean and Coastal Case Alert.