The Raisin Debate in the Supreme Court

Why did the Supreme Court get involved in a dispute about raisins? George Will explained in an editorial that the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act passed in 1937 was one of the New Dealer responses to the Great Depression. The law required farmers to turn over a significant portion of their crops to the government, which would theoretically drive up prices. Something called the “Raisin Administrative Committee” was formed by regulation in 1949, and that committee accused Marvin and Laura Horne of refusing to turn over a million pounds of raisins. The government wanted the Hornes to pay $700,000 for their failure to comply.  Justice Elena Kagan wondered during the arguments whether this case involves “a taking or it’s just the world’s most outdated law.” Will’s answer is: both. “The law has spawned more than 25 ‘marketing orders’ covering almonds, apricots, avocados, cherries, cranberries, dates, grapes, hazelnuts, kiwifruit, onions, pears, pistachios, plums, spearmint oil, walnuts and other stuff.”

The New York Times reports that the Supreme Court ruled that actions by the raisin committee “…amounted to an unconstitutional taking of private property by the government.” The Hornes successfully defended themselves arguing that the program violated “…the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment, which says private property may not be taken for public use without just compensation.” Eight justices agreed and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan joined Sotomayor in dissenting that the “Hornes should be relieved of the obligation to pay the fine and associated civil penalties.” Breyer wrote that he would have returned the case to lower courts. In his concurrence with the majority Justice Thomas, perhaps showing that even Supreme Court Justices can use puns, “…said such a move would be a fruitless exercise.”

I enjoyed Will’s closing sentences. “Progressives say, ‘Government is simply the name we give to the things we chose to do together. That is not how the Hornes are experiencing government.”

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