Whatever Happened to that Egg Case?

March 18, 2015 | Kristine A. Tidgren

Readers interested in the new Des Moines Board of Water Works federal lawsuit may have followed another federal lawsuit last year, the "California egg case" as it was often called. These readers may be wondering, “What ever happened to that egg case?” The answer is that it’s still winding its way slowly through the federal court system. The status of Missouri v. Harris, No. 14-17111[i], which is pending in the 9th Circuit, is illustrative of the federal litigation process. It also suggests that we will not have a resolution to the Des Moines Water Works case any time soon.

As you'll recall, California voters passed "Proposition 2” in 2008. Proposition 2 was a ballot initiative requiring that all egg producers in the state provide enough room for their chickens to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around freely. The new law went into effect January 1, 2015. The force behind this law was the Humane Society of the United States, which spent more than $4 million to ensure its passage.

It did not take long for lawmakers to realize that this law would place California producers at a competitive disadvantage to egg farmers from other states. The mandated cages were expensive, and California producers would now have to invest in infrastructure not required for other egg producers.

Enter AB 1437. In 2010, the California Legislature made it a crime to sell a shelled egg in California, if that egg came from a hen that was confined in a cage not compliant with the Proposition 2 standards. This law too was effective January 1, 2015.

The stated purpose of AB 1437 was to “protect California consumers from the deleterious health, safety, and welfare effects” of egg-laying hens exposed to stress, namely small cages. Governor Schwarzenegger commented when he signed the bill, “By ensuring that all eggs sold in California meet the requirements of Proposition 2, this bill is good for both California egg producers and animal welfare.” He mentioned no health and safety purpose for the law. With the stroke of a pen, California sought to regulate egg production in every egg-producing state.

The egg producing states responded by filing a federal lawsuit in March of 2014, seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional. The plaintiffs, which included officials from Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, sought to represent their states in a parens patriae capacity. This means that they sought to stand in the place of egg producers and citizens who would be injured by this new law. The states alleged that the law imposed an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce and that because the law was  preempted by federal egg safety laws, it violated the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution as well.

In October of last year, a federal judge dismissed the case out of hand before even reaching the merits. The court found that the plaintiffs lacked standing to file the lawsuit because they did not show that the law would harm their citizens as a whole[ii]. The court also found that the states did not show that there was a genuine threat of enforcement by California.

Another stroke of the pen, another court battle.

The State’s promptly filed an appeal to the federal court’s ruling, and this month filed their opening brief.  The brief from the State of California is due May 1. The Humane Society of America, which has intervened as a defendant in support of this "health and safety" law, will also file its brief by May 1. The states will then file reply briefs, oral argument will be set, and you get the point...

This lawsuit will drag on and on…and all the while noone has addressed the merits. This appeal is only about the propriety of the states bringing the action on behalf of their citizens.

The new Des Moines Water Works lawsuit will likely follow the same course. The first battle will likely be over the propriety of suing the supervisors in the first place. This battle alone could drag on for months. All the while no solutions will be reached, thousands of dollars will be spent, and the price of eggs will continue to rise.


[ii]Half of all eggs eaten by Americans are produced in Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California. Nearly half of California’s eggs are imported from other states. And nearly a third of those imports come from Iowa, the nation’s largest egg-producing state, whose producers sell about 1.3 billion eggs to California each year. The lawsuit had alleged that egg producers would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with the new requirements and that consumers would foot the bill in form of higher egg prices.