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Supreme Court denies petition to appeal federal anti-cockfighting law

American territories have failed in their attempts to have the federal cockfighting ban law struck down with the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear Puerto Rico's appeal.

The pleading came to the Supreme Court after lower U.S. courts upheld the federal law that applies across the nation.

In each case, the federal courts affirmed that Congress has the authority to establish that no part of the United States, whether a state or a territory, should be a refuge for staged animal fights.

In December 2018, Congress passed, and the President signed, the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018; that legislative package included a provision applying all federal prohibitions against animal fighting to the U.S. territories.

Congress gave the territories a year to comply, with the prohibition taking effect on December 20, 2019.

That latest amendment to the federal animal fighting law made it a felony to operate a cockfighting venue or to participate in animal fights. Other provisions of the federal anti-animal fighting law – such as prohibitions on transporting or receiving fighting birds, trading in fighting implements, or being a spectator at an animal fighting event -- had already applied to the territories for years.

In the run-up to the new federal provisions going into full effect, a U.S. District Court in San Juan rejected the pleadings from cockfighting interests.

“Neither the Commonwealth’s political statues nor the Territorial Clause, impede the United States Government from enacting laws that apply to all citizens of this Nation alike, whether as a state or territory,” wrote District Judge Gustavo Gelpí in siding with the United States in an October 2019 ruling in a case brought by Club Gallistico and other fight-venue operators.

In January 2020, Federal Appeals Court Judge Sandra L. Lynch, on behalf of a panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, wrote that the U.S. law against cockfighting “is a valid exercise of Congress’s Commerce Clause power and does not violate plaintiffs’ individual rights.”

A similar case from a Guam cockfighter was rejected by a U.S. District Court on Guam in October 2020, and an appeal is pending before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, said the the U.S. Supreme Court's denial of the plea for a re-hearing of a challenge to the federal law banning cockfighting is a test of civil society in Puerto and on Guam.

"The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and Guam, as legal jurisdictions of the United States, cannot opt out of U.S. laws that forbid animal cruelty," Pacelle said.

"Congress and the federal courts have determined that cockfighting is not only barbaric and inhumane, but it is bound up with interstate commerce, grounding the authority of the federal government to forbid staged fights that leave animals with punctured lungs, gouged eyes, and other grievous injuries and often death."

Pacelle said despite the law, cockfighters in Guam and Puerto Rico continue to stage cockfights.

"We appreciate the community watchdogs for speaking out against animal cruelty crimes. We encourage continued efforts to - it takes a community to make change," Pacelle said.

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