Friday, March 29, 2013

Your Raisins or Your Life: Recapping the Horne Oral Argument before the U.S. Supreme Court

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in this term's third property rights case, which could have important implications for a variety of agriculture interests. Horne v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, No. 12-236 (argued Mar. 20, 2013). This is the case where 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 weapon against government enforcement.

Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog recaps the strange and lively arguments:
A portentous constitutional issue hung in the air Wednesday as the Supreme Court examined government seizures of private property, and everybody seemed to want to have it decided. But it was almost totally lost in a fog raised by a perplexing array of minutiae about how the government tries to push up the price of raisins. The cloud was so thick that even a highly respected professor and former judge misspoke twice in describing his clients’ role.


In one of the points Wednesday when a bit of clarity seemed within reach, Justice Stephen G. Breyer (who often asks questions with multiple layers of complexity) suggested simply that the raisin program is either constitutional or it’s not, and “it rather seems to me that it is not a right fit for the Court of Claims. Am I wrong about that?”
The Wall Street Journal gets the implications right for the average Joe:
Taxpayers are wary of government programs that confiscate private property—witness outrage over the 2005 Supreme Court Kelo decision that let government take homes via eminent domain for private use. Now the High Court is considering another program that orders citizens to surrender their assets—or else.
U.S. raisin farmers have been required for nearly 80 years to turn over a share of their crops to the federal government every year, often at below-market prices. Last week the Supreme Court heard oral argument on whether, in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, this annual raisin heist is "a taking, or just the world's most outdated law." 
For small businesses, these routine confiscations are a special burden because so few can afford to defend their property rights. Similar federal marketing orders cover produce including apricots, avocados, kiwis and olives. The effect is to impose a tax on farmers. 
As Justice Antonin Scalia put it, so it's "your raisins or your life, right? . . . you don't have to pay the penalty if you give us the raisins." No, Mr. Palmore explained. "They have to give the raisins . . . It's not a choice." Which is why the Justices should find these takings to be unconstitutional.
Seems like The Onion picked a good case to parody, doesn't it?

Those who like to read the tea leaves would do best by checking out Robert Thomas's blow-by-blow analysis of the arguments. His prediction?
We're predicting a narrow ruling from the Court vacating the Ninth Circuit's amended opinion, holding that the issue is not "jurisdictional," and sending the case back to the Ninth Circuit for further consideration of the Hornes' request for en banc review. The multiple concessions from USDA's counsel are probably going to be too much to overcome, and a narrow remand would allow the Court to resolve the case without getting too far into the weeds about "handlers" and "producers," issues that no Justice seemed ready to tackle, and without getting into the merits of the takings issue.
In his preview of the Horne case, Robert Thomas did a good job of connecting Horne to a case that's near and dear to this author's heart, Koontz v. St Johns River Water Management District, No. 11-1447 (argued Jan. 15, 2012). I've written about the Koontz case many times, and as my readers know, I co-authored an amicus brief in support of the landowner-petitioner in that case. As I've discussed beforeHorne, like Koontz, raises a fundamental question about the Takings Clause: does it have any power to prevent unconstitutional threats? Or must a property owner roll over to the government's extortion and only then go to court?