The Supreme Court sided today with a California farmer who claimed a Depression-era program requiring him to give the government some of his raisins violated his constitutional rights.
In an 8-1 ruling, the high court said the Agriculture Department initiative that began in 1937 to stabilize the prices of crops like raisins and nuts amounted to a taking without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
Calling the program a "clear physical taking" and citing the Magna Carta and Revolutionary War, Chief Justice John Roberts said the government is required to pay individuals when it obtains "personal property," just as it must when it seizes land.
"Nothing in this history suggests that personal property was any less protected against physical appropriation than real property," Roberts wrote.
The 1937 Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act ordered USDA to issue annual "marketing orders" that require "handlers" of certain crops to give a percentage of their harvest to the government, which then uses it for various programs like school lunches.
Marvin Horne, who has grown raisins in central California for decades, reorganized his operation in 2000 in hopes of sidestepping the "handler" requirement so he would not need to give the government any of his crop.
He didn’t turn over raisins in the 2002-03 crop year or the following year, when USDA required handing over 47 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
USDA investigated and accused him of violating the order. It fined him about $480,000 — the market value of his raisins that the agency said should have been submitted — plus about a $200,000 civil penalty.
Horne challenged USDA in court. The case previously reached the Supreme Court two years ago, but the justices ruled narrowly on procedural grounds and remanded the litigation to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Greenwire, June 10, 2013).
The San Francisco-based appeals court sided with the government, agreeing largely with its rationale that raisin farmers benefit from the marketing order program because it stabilizes and raises market prices for the crops.
Further, the government claimed that the program was voluntary — a farmer was free to plant other crops — and that a majority of raisin growers support it.
The Supreme Court rejected both arguments today in a ruling that could broaden the scope of what type of property — personal or physical — qualifies as per se taking, meaning the government is automatically required to compensate the owner.
"The taking here cannot reasonably be characterized as part of a similar voluntary exchange," Roberts wrote.
Seven justices concurred with Roberts’ reasoning on whether the program amounted to a taking. But there was disagreement over whether Horne should be immediately relieved of the monetary penalties. Roberts, along with the court’s four other conservatives, said he should be.
Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, dissented, writing that aspect of the case should be remanded to the 9th Circuit.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from Roberts’ decision in full.
The case was closely watched by property rights activists, who applauded the ruling this morning.
"Taking property is taking property, whether it’s a middle-class family home or fresh raisins," said Carrie Severino of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network. "Today the court reaffirmed the obvious constitutional principle that if the government decides to take someone’s property for its own use, the government must pay for it."
Click here for the opinion in Horne v. Department of Agriculture.