Washington – For the federal government, the law that expanded the cockfighting ban to Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories is not unconstitutional, and argued that the U.S. Constitution´s Territorial Clause is clear about the authority of Congress to legislate on the issue.
The U.S. Department of Justice´s response to lawsuits by cockfighters may have surprised many since it stressed that the federal law already included prohibitions related to cockfighting organized in Puerto Rico, such as attending animal fighting ventures; owning, training, buying or transporting cockfighting birds; or selling, buying, transporting, or delivering in interstate or foreign commerce a knife, a gaff, or any other sharp instrument for use in an animal fighting venture.
Attorney Christopher Healy -acting on behalf of U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division,
Joseph Hunt and opposing summary judgment in the case - argued that just as the courts have unanimously confirmed the federal government's authority to restrict animal fighting in all 50 states, it can also do so regarding the territories.
The Asociación Cultural y Recreativa del Gallo Fino de Pelea and the Club Gallístico de Puerto Rico asked the Federal Court in San Juan to declare unconstitutional the law that last December extended the federal ban on the cockfighting industry to territories like Puerto Rico.
The plaintiffs - in a consolidated case before federal judge Gustavo Gelpí - argued that the law exceeds the authority of Congress under the interstate commerce clause, violates the principles of federalism, the right to freedom of assembly and association, due process and “deprivation of their rights to property and liberty,” and it represents the loss of “lawful business opportunities, loss of income and profits,” and “deprivation of lifestyles often practiced” by thousands in Puerto Rico.
In Puerto Rico and the territories, the ban would become effective in 74 days.
On behalf of the federal government, attorney Healy said Section 12616 of the law - that extends cockfighting ban to Puerto Rico and the other territories is "only the last step" toward eliminating that practice.
In that sense, he said that technically what will be banned in Puerto Rico, as of December 20, will be to sponsor or promote cockfighting activities or the use of the postal service or other instruments of interstate commerce to encourage that activity.
All other prohibitions, although never enforced by the federal government on the island, were approved in Congress before 2018, Healy said in the Federal Court in San Juan.
According to the federal Justice Department, the six-year term to challenge bans signed into law before 2018 has expired and cannot even be challenged.
Healy said the fact that cockfighting is already illegal in all 50 states precludes claiming discrimination against Puerto Rico's cockfighters.
Even if someone could argue that Congress does not have the power to ban cockfighting in the states, the U.S. Justice Department attorney said the Territorial Clause grants Congress the authority to legislate on the island.
Under the U.S. Constitution´Territorial Clause, Congress has the authority to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting territories, such as Puerto Rico.
The federal attorney said that there is a clear rationale for the approval of the law and that lawmakers who supported the bill were looking to close, what in effect, is a gap in the implementation of the prohibition against the animal fight business, and ensure that it applies equally throughout the 50 states and the territories.
He also rejected allegations regarding that an activity related to Puerto Rican cultural identity is being challenged to the same extent as the ritual slaughter of animals.
Regarding lawsuits by cockfighters that they are being deprived of their right of association, the U.S. Department of Justice argued that the law does not undermine their right to associate to support that activity.
Resident Commissioner in Washington Jenniffer González indicated that she is promoting - in addition to Puerto Rico's exemption from the federal law - that Congress authorize a waiver on the implementation of the statute because, among other things, it does not allocate funds to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enforce the ban.