Lawyers for a group of cockpit owners and gamecock breeders are asking the Supreme Court to strike down a federal law that bans rooster fights in Puerto Rico.
The plaintiffs, who have the backing of the government of Puerto Rico, say the law is unconstitutional because it goes well beyond Congress’s power to regulate commerce between states and territories. Their petition says the case presents "an ideal vehicle to provide much-needed clarity on the limits" of Congress’s regulatory authority.
The case is a unique nexus of Puerto Rican social concern and conservative legal theories about legislative power. Though the dispute is intertwined with longstanding grievances about the island’s subordinate position in the U.S. political system, lawyers for the plaintiffs are advancing arguments that would put limits on the congressional authority to regulate business.
"Like horse racing in Kentucky, rodeos in Texas, and hunting in Montana, cockfighting is deeply ingrained in the island’s history, tradition, and culture," the petition reads. "Introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century, cockfighting has been practiced on the island of Puerto Rico for more than 400 years. Today, Puerto Rican law proclaims cockfighting to be a ‘cultural right of all Puerto Ricans.’"
Puerto Rico estimates that cockfighting supports more than 11,000 jobs and accounts for about $65 million in economic activity annually. There are about 70 cockpits across the island that host thousands of fights each year in front of hundreds of thousands of spectators, according to the petition.
The 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act included a provision that criminalized cockfighting in every state and in U.S. territories like Puerto Rico. After the 2018 legislation, engaging in cockfighting risks a five-year prison term for each violation. Proponents cited the cruelty of the sport and associated criminal activity like drug dealing as reason for the change. Rooster fights are also connected with the 2002 spread of an exotic avian-borne illness called Newcastle disease.
The legislation drew bitter denunciations from the island, where rooster fights are a fixture of life. Puerto Rico’s legislature denounced the bill in a resolution, and the island’s nonvoting delegate to Congress strongly opposed passage of the 2018 law.
A lead challenger to the law in the lower courts was Club Gallístico, an indoor cockpit outside San Juan. The club accommodated hundreds of guests who wagered thousands of dollars on roosters over the course of a fight. Other plaintiffs included cockpit judges, gamecock breeders, and artisans who craft accessories for fighting roosters. The lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court is Ángel Manuel Ortiz-Díaz, who owns two fighting venues and breeds hundreds of gamecocks.
Now in the High Court, lawyers for the petitioners say the Court should use the cockfighting case as an opportunity to clarify Congress’s power to regulate commerce under the Constitution.
Under modern commerce clause precedents, Congress may legislate on any subject that has "substantial effects" on interstate commerce. Conservative critics say that low bar gives Congress almost unbounded power to regulate, since all kinds of activity affects the national economic situation. Those critics have urged the Court to abandon that test altogether, or articulate clear limits on congressional regulatory power under the Constitution.
The plaintiffs emphasize that cockfighting itself is not a commodity traded among states and territories. And before the 2018 law, rooster fights were mostly confined to outlying U.S. possessions like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Therefore, local cockfighting is beyond the scope of Congress’s commerce clause power.
"Cockfighting in Puerto Rico is an inherently local activity," the petition reads. "There is no reason to believe that cockfighting in Puerto Rico and three island territories—islands that are hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from the mainland—was creating a national market for birds or any other commodity."
A federal trial court and the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals turned away legal challenges to the anti-cockfighting provision, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court. The circuit court said the ban was an ordinary exercise of Congress’s power to regulate commercial activity that crosses state lines, since sports and wagering is usually tied up with some kind of national economic activity.
The Justice Department will file its response to the petition by Aug. 18. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the appeal.
The case is No. 20-1735 Ángel Manuel Ortiz-Díaz v. U.S.