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Every month, One Green Planet reports on major cases in animal law. This month, it’s almost mandatory to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld California’s Proposition 12.  In a rare animal-centric case that reached the nation’s highest court, SCOTUS ruled in favor of animal-protection groups.  But what does this mean for the bigger picture of animal law and activism?  That largely depends on what states–and Congress–do next.  Meanwhile, the Supreme Court dealt a heavy blow to the environment by curtailing the Clean Water Act.

1. The Supreme Court’s Ruling on Prop 12

In a sentence, the Supreme Court’s Prop 12 ruling was good for animals, nowhere near good enough for animals and complicated for legal doctrine.

California’s Proposition 12, in relevant part, bans the in-state sale of pork that comes from pigs whose mothers were confined in gestation cratesmetal cages where mother pigs are kept during their pregnancies. The crates are only slightly larger than pigs’ bodies, leaving them unable to turn around or comfortably lie down.

In 2018, nearly 63% of California voters directly passed the law through a ballot proposition; but out-of-state pork producers argued that they should be allowed to sell pig products in California without complying with Prop 12’s space requirements.  Otherwise, they said, California could impermissibly regulate pork production in other states.  In May 2023, the Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the law.

Exactly how important is National Pork Producers Council v. Ross for animals?  The short answer is: it depends.  On the one hand, gestation crates are indescribably cruel, and reducing their use will decrease the suffering of animals. But to be certain, these animals’ lives will still be miserable.  Even products with welfare claims like “free range” are largely humane-washing, as this Tyson employee admits in recent (non-graphic) investigation footage.

Source: Animal Outlook/Youtube

But the Supreme Court ruling is important for a different reason.  It allows—for now at least—states to pass laws protecting animals.  And these state laws are especially important because federal laws are woefully insufficient.  Consider, for example, that the three main federal laws protecting farmed animals—the Humane Slaughter Act,  the Animal Welfare Act, and the Twenty-Eight Hour law—all exclude chickens from their protections, even though chickens make up over 90% of the 10 billion animals used in animal agriculture in the United States.  NPPC v. Ross will prove to be a major victory for animals if states continue passing animal-protection laws.  And if they can.  The EATS Act (Exposing Agricultural Trade Suppression Act) is currently before Congress, and if passed it would strip this right away from states.  So animal advocates must stop the EATS act to protect states’ rights—and then must push states to past stricter protections for animals.

2. A Bad Supreme Court Case for the Environment

As good as NPPC v. Ross is (potentially) for animals, it’s hard to express just how bad Sackett v. EPA is for the environment—a case in which, just days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court curtailed the scope of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”).

The CWA is one of the nation’s most important environmental laws.  It aims to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters,” and to accomplish this, the Act strongly restricts the rights of people and companies to pollute water.  But the CWA only protects “waters of the United States.”   All other waters are without federal CWA protections.

In its recent ruling, the Supreme Court slashed the number of wetlands that the CWA protects as waters of the U.S.  Whereas previously, the CWA protected wetlands with a “significant nexus” to navigable waters, it no longer applies to wetlands unless they have a continuous surface connection to navigable waters.  Per SCOTUSblog, Sam Sankar of Earthjustice explained that the Court’s ruling “undoes a half-century of progress generated by the Clean Water Act.  Almost 90 million acres of formerly protected wetlands now face an existential threat from polluters and developers.”

Thanks for following animal law on One Green Planet.  If you want to read in more detail about the SCOTUS decision on Prop 12, make sure to read this article on Vox.

For previous Animal Law Updates, be sure to check out:

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