There’s a fight brewing over cockfighting, and it may be headed to the Supreme Court. The dispute is over who can regulate the bloodsport and how. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has joined a cadre of cockfighting enthusiasts to ask the Supreme Court to rule that it’s unconstitutional for the federal government to ban the contests.
In 1933, Puerto Rico changed its laws to allow the sport, in which gamecocks are often fitted with spurs and battle until death or dismemberment. The federal government later stepped in to ban the fights. People bet on this stuff, really. On chickens. Wearing spurs.
Closer to home, another fight is brewing, and it’s on a subject familiar to readers of this blog – Prop 22 in California. Passed in late 2020 through a ballot initiative, Prop 22 exempts app-based drivers from the ABC Test and allows them to maintain independent contractor status, so long as the app companies provide certain types of benefits to drivers.
But on Friday, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that Prop 22 is unconstitutional. Wait, what?
Even though Prop 22 passed with 58% support, the SEIU and a vocal group of drivers weren’t too happy and sued. The matter initially went to the California Supreme Court, but the Court dismissed the petition and said it would not hear the case. The SEIU tried again, this time starting in Superior Court, which is where cases are supposed to start. The union found a sympathetic ear in Judge Frank Roesch, who issued this 12-page opinion, which is confusing, hard to follow, and seems to me to be just plain wrong.
What was the basis for the ruling? Two things.
First, Judge Roesch concluded that Prop 22 was unconstitutional because it limits the legislature’s ability to regulate workers’ compensation. Prop 22 defines app-based drivers as contractors, and contractors don’t get workers comp coverage. The law limits the ability of the legislature to undo Prop 22, which was smart since the legislature hated the bill.
The judge found that these limitations made Prop 22 unconstitutional because the California constitution grants the legislature “plenary” power to oversee workers’ compensation. Prop 22 allows the legislature to make limited amendments to Prop 22 but not to undo the whole thing or reclassify the drivers as employees. In making his ruling, the judge essentially concluded that if the legislature couldn’t undo the law, then the law unduly restricted the legislature. But wait! Just a few pages earlier, the judge conceded that “The term ‘legislature’ in [the California constitution] includes the people acting through the initiative power.” Yes, that’s quite the internal contradiction. If the term “legislature” includes initiatives by the people, then initiatives by the people are the equivalent of legislative action. They are acting as the legislature. An appeals court will likely take care of that confusing mess.
Second, the judge concluded that Prop 22 violated the state constitution’s rule that legislation can only be about one subject. Judge Roesch pointed to the part of Prop 22 that gave app-based drivers the right to collectively bargain in a quasi-union environment. He concluded that the bargaining piece of the law is “utterly unrelated” to the law’s purpose. Huh? That utterly makes no sense. The whole point of Prop 22 was to grant app-based drivers various concessions in exchange for clarity on their status as contractors. These concessions include a minimum rate of pay, contributions to healthcare funds, automobile insurance, and the right to collectively bargain in a specified manner. How could the right to collectively bargain be unrelated to these other rights, all of which were part of the quid pro quo in exchange for preserving independent contractor status? The ruling makes no sense, and this too is likely to be cleaned up on appeal.
So what’s the status of Prop 22? Is it dead? Dismembered? The judge may have tied spurs to his feet and kicked the law around a bit, but I am cautiously optimistic that this law will live to see another day.
The case is now headed to the Court of Appeal, and it may end up back with the California Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, for those of you wagering on whether cockfighting will return to legal status, I’d say the odds are against. I don’t think the Supreme Court will take the case and, if it does, I don’t think the Court will say the federal government lacks the power to regulate chicken gladiator shows. I’d put my money on Prop 22 to survive on appeal. I think Judge Roesch’s analysis is incorrect and will be overturned on appeal. But I can’t say I have the same sense of optimism for our cockfighting aficionado friends.
© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.