Court Cases Over Farm Animals

Fifteen States Want Supreme Court to Rule on State Livestock Standard Laws

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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The Supreme Court takes a limited number of cases each year, but Missouri, Indiana and thirteen other states have cases against livestock production standards set in California and Massachusetts that could restrict the food products sold in those states. (DTN photo by Elaine Shein)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The attorneys general of 15 states are waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court will take up a pair of cases by Missouri and Indiana against California and Massachusetts over what they see as a violation of interstate commerce by trying to regulate agricultural production in other states.

Missouri and Indiana both led court challenges against laws in California and Massachusetts that seek to stop the sale of livestock and poultry products from other states based on farm standards set within their own state lines.

California's law involves standards for egg-laying hens on eggs to be sold within the state. Massachusetts law blocks the sale of eggs, pork and veal in the state based on confinement standards set by Massachusetts law.

Whatever way the nation's high court treats the cases, the two cases and state laws will help determine whether the federal government has final say on food and animal-welfare standards and whether states have authority to regulate the treatment of animals outside their borders when it comes to food sold in their states.

Last April, the Supreme Court asked the Trump administration's solicitor general to file a brief offering an opinion as to whether the cases are "original actions" that should be first heard in the Supreme Court rather than go through the circuit and appeals courts first. As of Friday, the U.S. solicitor general had not filed the Trump administration's opinion on the cases. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request from DTN about a brief.

In the case against California, the state of Missouri is joined by Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. The states argue the Supreme Court should have original jurisdiction to take the case. Missouri argues that California's law, requiring larger cages for egg-laying hens, increases the costs of eggs for consumers everywhere. Further, California is violating the interstate piece of the Commerce clause of the Constitution by imposing its own standards on eggs shipped into the state. Federal law also sets standards for eggs shipped and sold across the country.

In their case against Massachusetts, the state of Indiana is joined by Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Indiana argued Massachusetts' "Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act," which came from a state petition drive in 2016 and passed overwhelmingly by the state's voters, 77.7% to 22.3%. The law prevents the sale of eggs, veal and pork product from an animal "that was confined in a cruel manner." The plaintiff states argued that once the law goes into effect in 2022, it would create a significant financial burden for farmers in other states that sell in Massachusetts.

Andrew Miller, former Attorney General of Virginia, who consults for Protect the Harvest, spoke to states attorneys and other lawyers at an ag law conference in mid-August, looking to encourage other states to file briefs in the cases, so the Supreme Court would at least hear the cases.

"If each state could just come up with its own idea about how to regulate agriculture it would be the balkanization of interstate commerce," Miller said.

Miller noted the Supreme Court gets roughly 8,000 filings a year and said, "It is a longshot whether the Supreme Court could take up the cases."

On Friday, Miller hadn't heard any reference to the cases, but sometime in the next month, the Supreme Court is going to have to decide how to handle the Missouri and Indiana cases, because the high court's next term begins in October. As of now, it's still unclear whether the Supreme Court will hear the case, or more likely turn it over to a special master, who would essentially judge the case and then have the ruling reviewed by the Supreme Court.

In Congress, U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has a provision in the House version of the farm bill that would ban states from dictating animal welfare or other agricultural standards for farm products raised in other states. The "King amendment" has the support of major livestock groups and the food-processing industry, but has drawn criticism from animal rights groups and more than 100 House Democrats who wrote a letter this week criticizing the provision.

"This provision would virtually wipe out critical protections for communities and farmers that govern food safety, and air and water safety, workers' rights, community health, food labeling, fishing, animal welfare, permitting, record keeping, invasive species, and procurement," the Democrats wrote.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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Chris Clayton