Organizations representing the interests of Asian Americans have filed suit in a federal court in California against the governor and agency officials seeking a declaration that legislation enacted in October 2011 banning the “possession, sale, offer for sale, distribution, or trade of shark fins” violates their members’ equal protection rights, unlawfully interferes with interstate commerce and preempts federal law, and deprives them of rights, privileges and immunities under the U.S. Constitution. Chinatown Neighborhood Assn. v. Brown, No. 12-3759 (U.S. Dist. Ct., N.D. Cal., San Francisco Div., filed July 18, 2012).
According to the complaint, “Shark fins are used within the Chinese American community to make the traditional dish, shark fin soup. Shark fin soup is a cultural delicacy with origins dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.). It is a ceremonial centerpiece of traditional Chinese banquets as well as celebrations of weddings and birthdays of one’s elders. Shark fin soup serves as a traditional symbol of respect, honor, and appreciation in Chinese culture. Shark fin soup is also served at Chinese festivals such as Chinese New Year, Mid Autumn Festival and Winter Festival.” The plaintiffs allege that the state law’s sponsors argued that the ban would stop the practice of shark finning, “where a shark is caught, its fins cut off, and the carcass dumped back into the water,” a practice that the sponsors claimed was ongoing and current despite a federal law that already makes the practice illegal.
Alleging that the state ban, which allows other parts of a legally fished shark to be used, discriminates against people of Chinese national origin, interferes with the power of the U.S. Congress to regulate interstate commerce, unlawfully preempts federal law, and violates 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the plaintiffs seek a declaration that the law is unenforceable and void. They claim that absent the declaration, plaintiffs’ members “face potential criminal sanctions for the ancient traditional use of shark fin soup in cultural ceremonies and celebrations. Plaintiffs’ members also face potential criminal sanctions for ongoing business activities which they have legitimately pursued for years and in which they have invested substantially.”