California’s ethical farming laws survive a long, strange trip

Which came first? In 2008, California voters approved Proposition 2 (otherwise known as the Farm Animal Cruelty Act), a measure that prohibited confining egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and veal calves in any way that didn’t allow them to stand up, turn around freely, lie down, and fully extend their limbs. It was the first time voters had specifically been asked to eliminate the practice of confining chickens in battery cages (small wire cages used by factory farms that typically give egg-laying hens between 67 and 76 inches of space). Farmers had until January of 2015 to comply and the penalty for non-compliance was misdemeanor charges, a $1000 fine, and no more than 180 days in jail.

And then things got complicated (you knew I was going to say that). In response to complaints from California egg farmers who said that having to invest in compliance with Proposition 2 would put them at a competitive disadvantage, the legislature enacted Assembly Bill 1437 (known as the “egg sales law”), which required that all eggs sold in the state (including those imported from other states) meet the requirements of Proposition 2, too.

That law ruffled feathers as well. Six Midwestern states—Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma—filed a federal suit on behalf of their egg producers, saying, as Feedstuffs reported, that compliance with the egg sales law would come at “a cost of $120 million to remodel laying houses to meet California standards and … the state unfairly imposes burdens on farmers outside its borders” and would drive up egg prices for consumers.

A District Court judge dismissed that suit, saying the states had failed to prove that not just egg farmers but their citizens would be affected by the egg sales law.

And then “King” got complicated. In a midnight vote, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) got an amendment attached to the 2012 federal farm bill that said (according to The Hill, which reported it at the time), “states can’t make such a ban … [and] can’t apply a law to imported products on the grounds that only the federal government can regulate interstate commerce under the Constitution.” That late-night add was called, to no one’s surprise, “The King Amendment.” And it passed.

So, farmers: one, consumers: zero? Well, not really.

So, farmers: one, consumers: zero? Well, not really. One farmer still wasn’t happy. Later in 2012—four days after Easter (a very big day for eggs), in fact—Riverside, California egg farmer William Cramer filed a lawsuit against Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris, challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 2 on the grounds that the measure didn’t specify the exact dimensions and was too vague, therefore making it impossible for farmers to implement properly. A district court dismissed the case. Cramer appealed.

And then things got … oh, forget it. In 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Proposition 2’s constitutionality, saying, “All Proposition 2 requires is that each chicken be able to extend its limbs fully and turn around freely.… Because hens have a wing span and a turning radius that can be observed and measured, a person of reasonable intelligence can determine the dimensions of an appropriate confinement that will comply with Proposition 2.” Game over.

But, wait. Remember those six states? In February, they took their case to the Supreme Court and petitioned for a review of the lower court’s ruling.

And this week, the Supreme Court ruled. Well, actually, it didn’t. It denied the petition, effectively ending a long campaign against California’s efforts to maintain dominion over its own ethical standards.

Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.