U.S. Supreme Court rejects request by Iowa and other states challenging California’s ban on eggs from chickens kept in small cages

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illustration by Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an attempt by Iowa and 12 other states to fast-track their lawsuit against the state of California. The suit claims a 2008 California law that prohibits the sale of eggs from hens kept in cages that prevent them from “lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs; and turning around freely” is violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

According to the compliant by the 13 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin — the California law “violate[s] an unambiguous federal law that prohibits any State from purporting to impose on eggs shipped in interstate commerce any standards of quality or condition that are ‘in addition to or different from’ federal standards.” The states wanted to have the Supreme Court immediately hear the suit, without it first being considered by a federal district court or appeals court.

The Supreme Court rejected the states’ request without comment.

Replying to questions about Iowa’s participation in the lawsuit submitted last year by Little Village to the Office of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, Chief Deputy Attorney General Eric Tabor said in an email that Miller viewed the California law as “a single State’s attempt to dictate the manner of agricultural production in every other State.”

California’s regulations [on hen confinement] have no legitimate purpose — their sole purpose was to ‘level the playing field’ by increasing the regulatory burdens on out-of-state producers to protect California’s egg producers from the natural competitive effects of California’s stifling regulatory environment.

Iowa is the top egg-producing state in the country, and efforts to protect the state’s egg industry cross partisan lines. Miller is a Democrat, who has been repeated attacked by Iowa Republicans for his opposition to Trump administration policies. On the other side, Republican Congressman Steve King has tried (and failed) to amend the federal farm to prevent states from adopting laws that impact agricultural production in other states.

The Iowa legislature went even further last year, passing a law that requires all grocers that sell eggs and participate in the federal food program for low-income mothers, infants and children (commonly known as WIC or “food stamps”) must sell “conventional eggs” in addition to any cage-free or eggs advertised as being produced in humane conditions.

In spite of the multi-state lawsuit, California voters approved another Proposition 12 in the November general election. That new law mandates that all eggs sold in the state must come from cage-free hens starting in 2022.

If the federal courts were to find that the 2008 California law is unconstitutional, Proposition 12 would also be invalidated.

Also on Monday, the Supreme Court rejected without comment a request from 13 states to immediately hear their lawsuit alleging a Massachusetts law that bans “the sale of eggs, veal and pork product from an animal ‘that was confined in cruel manner’” starting in 2022. Iowa did not join that lawsuit, and is not challenging the Massachusetts law.

Asked why Iowa was suing California but not Massachusetts, Tabor replied, “No comment.”

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