By Terry Baynes
(Reuters) - The U.S. Congress did not exceed its constitutional authority when it passed criminal laws that ban cockfighting, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Friday.
After they were convicted of operating cockfighting derbies in Swansea, South Carolina, Scott Lawson, Jeffrey Gilbert and eight others filed two separate appeals in 2010.
In both, the defendants argued that Congress' power under the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce did not extend to animal fighting, a distinctly local activity.
But the Richmond, Virginia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit disagreed in both cases, finding that animal fighting has a significant impact on business across state lines.
"Animal fighting ventures are inherently commercial enterprises that often involve substantial interstate activity," Judge Barbara Keenan wrote in a unanimous opinion on behalf of the three-judge panel.
The federal animal-fighting ban, first passed in 1976, makes it a crime to sponsor or exhibit an animal in a fight for sport, betting or entertainment.
Prosecutors accused the defendants of entering roosters in so-called derbies, a series of fights where the owner of the winning bird takes home a pot made up of participants' entrance fees.
Before the fight, a knife is attached to the rooster's leg; the fight ends when one of the birds dies or surrenders. The losing bird is often killed after the match, the court opinion said. The Humane Society of the United States filed briefs in support of the animal fighting ban.
Upholding the ban, the 4th Circuit panel found that cock fighters often transport birds across state and foreign borders, risking the spread of infectious diseases like bird flu.
The court cited Congress' 2007 findings that the gamefowl industry, which breeds birds for fights, generated billions of dollars in annual revenue, with a nationwide economic impact.
The panel did overturn the convictions against Lawson and several of his co-defendants, finding that their trial was compromised when a juror conducted his own research into the meaning of "sponsor" - an element of the animal fighting crime. The panel authorized a new trial against those individuals.
Lawyers for the defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment. And the U.S. Attorney's Office did not immediately provide comment.
The 4th Circuit appeals are U.S. v. Lawson et al, No. 10-4831; U.S. v. Gilbert, No. 10-4848.
(Reporting By Terry Baynes; editing by Paul Thomasch and Todd Eastham)