This California Raisin Grower Just Got His Day In The Sun | St. Louis Public Radio

This California Raisin Grower Just Got His Day In The Sun

Jun 22, 2015
Originally published on June 24, 2015 3:13 pm

The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Depression-era federal program aimed at stabilizing raisin and other commodity prices.

Until now, the way the system has worked was this: A board of private raisin producers met each year to determine how much, if any, of the producers' crop would be set aside for a reserve. The reserve would then be used for charity, for government programs like school lunches, or for export. It took the votes of two-thirds of the raisin committee to approve a set-aside. That private collective judgment then was adopted into law by order of the Secretary of Agriculture.

As most of the raisin producers saw it, the system protected them from market saturation and low crop prices.

But that's not how Marvin and Laura Horne saw it. In 2003, when the raisin committee voted to set aside 47 percent of the growers' crop, the Hornes balked, selling 100 percent of their raisins. The federal government fined them the market value of the missing raisins — nearly $500,000 — plus an additional civil penalty of $200,000.

The Hornes went to court to challenge the whole raisin reserve program, contending that it amounted to an unconstitutional taking of their property without just compensation. Backed by conservative property rights groups, they argued that if the government wanted the raisins, it had to pay the market price, not some reduced government rate, or often nothing at all.

Most of the raisin growers in California disagreed, arguing that the Hornes were free-riding for a profit while other growers played by the rules.

The government argued that it wasn't taking the Hornes' property because they were free to sell their grapes for other purposes, like wine, instead of raisins.

The Supreme Court rejected those arguments, however, by an 8-to-1 vote, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor the sole dissenter.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the government's "let them eat wine" argument is "probably not much more comforting to the raisin growers than similar retorts have been to others throughout history."

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito joined the opinion in full, while Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan concurred for the most part.

Raisin producer Horne was elated by the court's decision. "It's just an affirmation in our Constitution and the American way of life," he said.

The language of the opinion was far-reaching, declaring for the first time that there is no difference between real property — that is, land and buildings — and other personal property. Raisins are private property and "the fruit of the growers' labor," not "public things subject to the absolute control of the state," said Roberts.

But the expansive language raised unanswered questions. "The question is how far does this sweep?" asked Vermont Law School Professor John Echeverria. "The FDA seizes adulterated drugs. Is that now a taking? Local government officials take animals away from people who ... mistreat them. Federal law deprives felons of the right to possess firearms. Is that now a taking?" Echeverria observes that answers to those questions are not even hinted at in Monday's ruling.

"I think the court doesn't provide a lot of answers there," agrees University of Chicago law professor Will Baude. Baude, however, praises the decision as overdue.

He says the court's decision might have ramifications in other areas of the law, too, most notably the government's efforts to seize the property of criminal wrongdoers, even when that property is not directly connected to the crime.

As for agricultural programs, though, Monday's decision is not likely to make much difference. These days, grapes are used more for juice and wine, so that no raisins at all have been set aside for reserves since 2010. That leaves just two agricultural products in the hot seat — tart cherries and spearmint oil.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Oh, I heard it through the grapevine.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The raisin industry heard it today, not through the grapevine, but from the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices struck down a Depression-era program aimed at stabilizing raisin prices. It required farmers to give up part of their raisin crop in years when the yield was so high it could send prices plummeting. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The way the system worked until today was this. A board of private raisin producers met each year to determine how much, if any, of the producers' crop would be set aside for a reserve to be used for charity or for government programs like school lunches or for export. It took the votes of two-thirds of the raisin committee to approve a set-aside. That private collective judgment was then adopted into law by order of the secretary of agriculture. As most of the raisin producers saw it, the system protected them from market saturation and low crop prices. But that's not how Marvin and Laura Horne saw it. And in 2003, when the raisin committee voted to set aside 47 percent of the growers' crop, the Hornes balked, selling 100 percent of their crop. The federal government fined them the market value of the missing raisins - nearly $500,000 plus an additional civil penalty of $200,000.

The Hornes went to court to challenge the whole reserve program, contending that it amounted to an unconstitutional taking of their property without just compensation. Backed by conservative property rights groups, they argue that if the government wanted the raisins, it had to pay them the market price, not some reduced government rate. Most of the raisin growers in California disagreed, arguing that the Hornes were free-riding for a profit while other growers played by the rules. The government argued that it wasn't taking the Hornes' property since they were free to grow their grapes for other purposes, like wine.

Today, though, the Supreme Court rejected those arguments by an 8-to-1 vote. Chief Justice John Roberts said the government's let-them-eat-wine argument is probably not much more comforting to the raisin growers than similar retorts have been to others throughout history. Mr. Horne was elated.

MARVIN HORNE: Just an affirmation in our Constitution and the American way of life.

TOTENBERG: The language of today's opinion was sweeping, declaring, for the first time, that there's no difference between real property - that is land and buildings - and other personal property. Raisins, the chief justice said, are private property, the fruit of the grower's labor, not public things subject to the absolute control of the state.

JOHN ECHEVERRIA: The question is, how far does this sweep?

TOTENBERG: Vermont College of Law professor, John Echeverria.

ECHEVERRIA: The FDA seizes adulterated drugs. Is that now a taking? Local government officials take animals from people who don't feed their animals and otherwise mistreat them. Federal law deprive felons of the right to possess firearms. Is that now a taking?

TOTENBERG: Echeverria observes that the answers to those questions are not even hinted at in today's ruling. University of Chicago law professor, Will Baude, concedes the point.

WILL BAUDE: I think the court doesn't provide a lot of answers there.

TOTENBERG: But Baude praises the decision as overdue, suggesting that the next step could be other government seizures.

BAUDE: When you do something wrong with your property, the government often comes in and takes it from you, and that's easy to see in the case of drugs or guns. But it also means they'll take your car if you were dealing drugs out of your car. In some places, they even try to take your house.

TOTENBERG: As for agricultural programs, though, today's decision is not likely to make much difference. Grapes, these days, go more for juice and wine, and that leaves only two targeted commodities - tart cherries and spearmint oil. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.