Usually references to the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney General evoke images of the really serious criminal overlords finally getting the justice they deserve. Mob bosses. Big businessmen. Notorious attorneys. Celebrities. We see the perpetrators walking with a posse surrounded by journalists, cameras, and microphones.
But the Justice Department also has a robust civil practice as well. These cases aren’t quite as sexy — there are no handcuffs, and no one is doing time in the slammer — but they can often have big consequences throughout the country.
That’s precisely the case (pun intended) with a challenge to California’s Prop 12. The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council sued the State of California attempting to prohibit enforcement of the law. But the lower courts dismissed the case after animal-rights groups filed motions arguing they failed to state a claim. The more liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.
But then the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case on appeal — something that hasn’t happened in these types of cases for quite some time. Agriculture groups and animal-rights groups have both filed amicus briefs (read: briefs filed by nonparties who have an interest in the case). And now, even more surprisingly, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar filed an amicus brief with the high court supporting the pork industry’s position.
Prelogar, a Biden appointee, argues that California voters can’t pass laws that unduly burden farmers in other states.
And that’s the problem with Prop 12: California tries to impose its will on the rest of the country. The law requires that any pork sold in the state must be produced according to animal-housing standards set by the law. So no matter where those hogs are raised, the farmer raising them has to abide by California law. (I previously wrote a more detailed piece about Prop 12 here.)
It’s not the first time California voters tried to impose their will on all U.S. agriculture either. In 2008, voters approved a ballot measure that required each laying hen to have a certain amount of space. When the state legislature reviewed the law, it then added language that imposed the requirements on any producers selling eggs within the state. Six states, including Missouri and Iowa, challenged the law in court. But that lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.
So the outcome of the Prop 12 case is a really big deal. It could finally be the death of these nationwide state laws. Activists will no longer be able to go into a state with a population sympathetic to their message and pass laws that dictate production requirements to anyone selling products in that state. Instead only the state where a farm is located can impose regulatory burdens on farmers.
I mean, that’s exactly why we have the Commerce Clause. States aren’t allowed to burden interstate commerce. And the U.S. Supreme Court’s willingness to hear the case might be smoke signals that it’s ready to enforce the so-called dormant commerce clause.
Before we all get too excited though, understand that this case is far from over. The appeal involves a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. In essence, that means the court dismissed the lawsuit because the complaint, taken as true, didn’t support an enforceable cause of action. If the Supreme Court ultimately rules in favor of AFBF and NPPC, it’ll send the case back to the lower courts for further proceedings.
Regardless, I’m excited to watch this unfold. And I hope I’m interpreting the smoke signals correctly!
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.