Appeals exhausted, cockfighters in Puerto Rico, and also in Guam, are legally obligated to cease staged animal fights and follow the law
Washington, D.C. – Without comment, the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday denied a writ of certiorari from political leaders in Puerto Rico seeking relief from a federal law that bans cockfighting there and in every other part of the United States. The pleading came to the Supreme Court after lower U.S. courts rejected the claims of cockfighting interests and their local political allies in Puerto Rico and also in Guam. In each case, the federal courts affirmed that the 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. The 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. And 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.
In response to this latest action by the U.S. Supreme Court, Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, issued the following statement:
“Yesterday’s notice from the U.S. Supreme Court that it has denied a request 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 whimsically opt-out of U.S. laws that forbid animal cruelty. The 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.
Tips from hundreds of Puerto Ricans and Guamanians to Animal Wellness Action reveal that cockfighters, abetted by politicians on the islands, are breaking federal law and continuing to stage fights there, despite a series of emphatic court rulings that make plain their acts of animal cruelty constitute a felony offense. Cockfighters must obey the law, and their allies who hold public office and take an oath to uphold the Constitution have a legal responsibility to ensure that they do so.”
Animal Wellness Action notes that the presence of an above-ground cockfighting industry anywhere undermines prohibitions elsewhere. Territorial disregard for the federal anti-cockfighting law gives animal fighters an unwarranted patina of legitimacy, a market for fighting animals and paraphernalia, and venues for the conduct.
Animal Wellness Action, the Animal Wellness Foundation, and the Center for a Humane Economy have participated as a friend of the court (amicus curiae) on the side of the United States in all challenges to the 2018 U.S. law banning cockfighting everywhere in the nation, including a similar challenge from a cockfighting enthusiast on Guam.
Under the federal anti-animal fighting law, it is a crime to:
- Knowingly sponsor or exhibit in an animal fighting venture;
- Knowingly attend an animal fighting venture, or knowingly cause an individual who has not attained the age of 16 to attend an animal fighting venture;
- Knowingly buy, sell, possess, train, transport, deliver, or receive any animal for purposes of having the animal participate in an animal fighting venture;
- Knowingly use the mail service of the U.S. Postal Service, or any “written, wire, radio televisions or other form of communications in, or use a facility of, interstate commerce,” to advertise an animal for use in an animal fighting venture, or to advertise a knife, gaff, or other sharp instrument designed to be attached to the leg of a bird for use in an animal fighting venture, or to promote or in any other manner further an animal fighting venture except as performed outside the U.S.;
- Knowingly sell, buy, transport, or deliver in interstate or foreign commerce “a knife, a gaff, or any other sharp instrument” designed or intended to be attached to the leg of a bird for use in an animal fighting venture.
For more information on the issue, including a legislative history, go to www.EndCockfighting.org, a microsite created by Animal Wellness Action.