Supreme Court justices wallow in legal morass over challenge to California pork industry restrictions

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices appeared conflicted Tuesday as they weighed whether a challenge to a California animal welfare law that bans the sale of pork derived from breeding pigs housed in confined spaces can move forward.

During more than two hours of oral argument, several justices raised concerns about the potential impact if the court were to endorse a measure that its challengers say unlawfully regulates farmers in other states, citing a broad range of actions that other states could take, some of them involving culture war issues like transgender rights and immigration.

But there also seemed to be awareness on the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, that a ruling against California could impose new limits on states trying to protect the health and welfare of their people.

The justices could ultimately revive the challenge by allowing it to move forward in lower courts, which upheld the measure, without needing to reach a conclusion about whether the California measure is lawful.

california-pork-pigs-scotus-standards-se-209p-f8e6ac.jpg 1x”/A pig and piglets in a pen at a ranch in Nicasio, Calif.
A pig and piglets in a pen at a ranch in Nicasio, Calif., on May 19, 2020.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Californians approved Proposition 12 in 2018 with nearly 63% of the vote, a margin of more than 3 million votes. The state’s lawyers pointed out in court papers that voters were told the measure, which is not in effect, would most likely increase the price of pork while providing for more humane living conditions for pigs and potentially reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses.

The National Pork Producers Council, which represents the pork industry, and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents farming interests, sued in 2019, saying the measure violates a provision of the Constitution called the commerce clausewhich has been interpreted to bar

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