SAN FRANCISCO — Soccer shoes and other athletic footwear made with prized kangaroo skin are banned under a state law that was upheld Monday by the California Supreme Court.
The court unanimously decided that a 36-year-old ban on the import and sale of products made from various wildlife species, including kangaroo, was not preempted by federal wildlife law.
The case was brought by an animal protection group against Adidas, which sells soccer, rugby and baseball shoes made with the hide of kangaroo species that state law protects. Adidas argued that federal law, which permits the import and sale of kangaroo skin, takes precedence over state law.
A lawyer for Adidas said the shoes at issue would continue to be sold in California until other legal issues in the case are resolved. He said the case eventually could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Animal rights groups hailed the decision for giving states the right to protect species even after the federal government decided that they were no longer in peril.
Bending to pressure, soccer star David Beckham, who debuted last weekend with the Los Angeles Galaxy, has announced that he will no longer wear shoes made with kangaroo hide, according to published reports.
"The precedent is major across the country, especially with the number of species losing federal protection," said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president of litigation for the Humane Society. "It is critically important in terms of a state's ability to protect species."
Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown praised the ruling for protecting the state's autonomy.
"The significance is not just kangaroos and shoes but the authority of the state to protect species by banning products," Brown said. "It reaffirms that California has the authority and autonomy as a state to do this kind of work."
In ruling against Adidas, the court said the federal government's decision to withdraw protection for the kangaroo "leaves the field open for states to act as they individually see fit."
"The Commonwealth of Australia is free to manage its indigenous wildlife populations in any manner it sees fit, subject to international treaty obligations," Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the court. "Likewise, California is free to regulate within its own borders unless federal law or the United States Constitution requires otherwise."
The ban, however, could still be repealed by the state Legislature or struck down on other legal grounds as the case proceeds. The state Senate voted in May to end the ban on importing and selling kangaroo parts, and that bill is now in the Assembly. Since 2003, the first year the bill was introduced, Adidas America has spent $435,693 lobbying the Legislature, state filings show.
Lauren Ornelas, campaign director for Viva! Vegetarians International Voice for Animals, said the ruling may help defeat Adidas' effort to end the ban.
"We would like to see these shoes taken off the shelves in California, and see Adidas really put its money and mind into using synthetic material," said Ornelas, whose group filed the lawsuit against Adidas. "Using wildlife for shoes is not acceptable."
Orly Degani, who represented Viva! in the case, said the selling of products containing kangaroo is illegal and the ban can be enforced.
"What [Adidas] is doing is illegal," she said. The Humane Society said the state's Fish and Game Department may be asked to enforce the ban.
In removing the red, eastern grey and western grey kangaroos from the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1995, federal government officials declared that they had become "abundant." In 2005, the population of the three species, whose hides are used in footwear, was just under 25 million.
Adidas Promotional Retail Operations Inc. had argued that the state ban was preempted by federal law. In addition to Adidas, the defendants were Sport Chalet and Offside Soccer.
Andrea Corso, a spokeswoman for Adidas Group, which makes athletic shoes and apparel, said other shoemakers also use kangaroo hide, which she said players prize for the feel.
She said Adidas makes 10 styles of shoes from kangaroo hide, but less than 1% of the company's footwear contains the skin of the marsupial.
"A lot of soccer players strongly prefer it," Corso said.
Beckham, whose wife, Victoria, is a vegetarian, said he reached his decision against wearing the shoes after viewing graphic videos of the killing of baby kangaroos in Australia, news reports said.
Despite Beckham's position, the Galaxy has sided with Adidas in trying to have the ban overturned. The team has said that California soccer players will be at a disadvantage if they cannot wear the lighter, softer shoes.