Sunday, March 17, 2013

Horne Oral Argument Preview: The Takings Clause as a Weapon Against Government Enforcement Actions

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear its third property rights case of the term, Horne v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, No. 12-236 (cert. granted Nov. 20, 2012). As I've explained, in this case, raisin producers raised the Takings Clause as a defense to the government's imposition of fines for a New-Deal-era agricultural marketing law. The government, on the other hand, has argued that the raisin producers can try their hand at bringing a separate lawsuit but cannot use it as a defense.

Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog always has insightful analyses, and he has done it again in this weekend's argument preview. He notes the tricky line in this case between jurisdiction and the merits of this case:
Although the bottom line of the case is about court jurisdiction, and about when a claim of “takings” is “ripe” for judicial review, the growers’ petition put a heavy emphasis on their argument that the government, by ordering them to make a cash payment to the government, had taken their property in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Any time the government imposes a penalty in the form of money damages, the petition contended, a “takings” claim is available because in demanding money, the government “had already determined that no ‘just compensation’ will be forthcoming.” So, at that very point, a claim of a “taking” should be allowed as a defense to the fine’s imposition, the growers asserted.
In his analysis, this case could have important implications:
This is another of those cases before the Court where the outcome may follow quite easily from the Court’s choice of which of two different theoretical boxes is the right one for this dispute. If it sees the case as a controversy over the government’s use of a “bait-and-switch” strategy to thwart a serious challenge to its marketing program enforcement, the growers could be well on their way to winning. The growers’ lawyers have done quite a good job of portraying this as a David-and-Goliath contest; here and there, the filings portray these vineyards as small parts of the raisin industry. 
But if the Court sees the case as one more in a lengthy line of pleas to relax its hard line against “premature” claims for just compensation under the Takings Clause, the Agriculture Department could be home free. The Court has steadfastly refused to budge on requiring those who claim a “taking” to go through the proper channels before they can mount a definitive claim for compensation. 
The case, as it was being readied for the Court, moved a considerable distance away from the legalities of the decades-long programs for shoring up agricultural prices. In fact, the back-and-forth categorization of the growers, as the controversy moved along, between “handlers” and “producers” is not likely to clarify legal responsibilities under these farm crop marketing schemes. In the end, the case began to appear, in some significant ways, as a case that turns on its special facts. 
But the larger potential of the case, to draw the Court deeply into the history and meaning of the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause, gives it the promise of producing a major new precedent. It could, indeed, clarify not only when claims under that Clause are, or are not, premature, but also determine whether there is anything to the growers’ quite novel argument that the Clause is a weapon against government enforcement actions through monetary fines.
This should be an interesting oral argument. Michael McConnell, a Stanford law professor and former federal appellate judge, will be arguing for the raisin producers. He and his team have done an excellent job of positioning this case as a David versus Goliath battle: “All we want to do is pack our raisins and sell them,” Mr. Horne has said. “The only thing I wanted, along with my group, was to be free.”