Cockfighting Ban Left Intact as High Court Rebuffs Puerto Rico
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court refused to question the federal ban on cockfighting, rejecting an appeal from a group of Puerto Ricans who said the prohibition exceeded the federal government’s authority.
The justices without comment left intact a federal appeals court decision that said the ban is a legitimate use of Congress’s constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce.
The ban was a triumph for animal-welfare activists when Congress slipped it into the 2018 farm bill. But it drew cries of protest in Puerto Rico, where cockfighting has deep roots and offered a livelihood for thousands of families -- injecting $65 million annually into the economy, according to supporters.
“The importance of this case to the people of Puerto Rico cannot be overstated,” argued the challengers, who were led by Angel Manuel Ortiz-Diaz, the owner of two cockfighting venues. “Cockfighting is deeply embedded in the island’s history, culture, and tradition. Our federal system reserves for Puerto Ricans the right to govern themselves on these inherently local issues.”
They had the support of the Puerto Rican government, which filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to step in.
President Joe Biden’s administration told the court it should reject the appeal, arguing that the law “regulates economic activity that substantially affects interstate commerce.”
The 2018 bill eliminated a carve-out for bird fighting in a broader law that bans organized animal combat for “the purposes of sport, wagering or entertainment.” At the time, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had already banned cockfighting, but Puerto Rico and three territories allowed it. The federal ban took effect in December 2019.
Conservatives have been pushing for decades for tighter limits on Congress’s commerce power. In the 2012 Supreme Court challenge to the Affordable Care Act, opponents argued that the commerce clause didn’t mean Congress could require people to buy insurance or else pay a tax penalty. Five justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, agreed with that argument, but Roberts joined with the liberals to uphold the Obamacare provision anyway, under Congress’s taxing authority.
The challengers invoked Roberts’ 2012 opinion, in which he said the constitutional framers ensured that powers affecting people’s lives, liberties and property “were held by governments more local and more accountable than a distant federal bureaucracy.”
They also cited a 1995 Supreme Court commerce clause decision invalidating a law that made it a federal crime to carry a gun in a school zone.
The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban, saying that “multiple congressional findings underscore the interstate commercial impact of cockfighting.”
The Biden administration said the ban is also authorized under a separate constitutional clause that gives Congress power to manage U.S. territories. The appeals court didn’t reach that issue in upholding the law.
The case is Ortiz-Diaz v. United States, 20-1735.
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