The Supreme Court could end federal confiscation of farmers’ crops
The Obama administration is once again championing Uncle Sam’s sacred right to seize farmers’ harvests. After being trounced on procedural grounds at the Supreme Court in 2013, the Justice Department wants the Supremes to uphold a recent appeals court decision that raisin confiscations are no violation of property rights. However, the Obama administration is misleading the court on whether raisin producers still support the oppressive regime.
This case began in 2002, when the Agriculture Department’s Raisin Administrative Committee prohibited producers from selling 47 percent of their raisin harvest in order to drive up raisin prices as part of a “reserve” scheme. The following year, the raisin committee decreed that producers must forfeit 30 percent of their harvest to the raisin committee. Marvin and Laura Horne, raisin growers in Kerman, Calif., refused to submit, and the Agriculture Department slapped them with more than $700,000 in fines.
The Hornes’ legal challenge has been percolating ever since. When the Supreme Court heard a procedural dispute over this case in 2013, Justice Stephen Breyer declared: “I can’t believe that Congress wanted the taxpayers to pay for a program that’s going to mean they have to pay higher prices as consumers.” Justice Elena Kagan suggested that the 1937 statute authorizing the raisin cartel could be “the world’s most outdated law.”
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the government last May, effectively declaring that a taking is not a taking if the feds intend to benefit the victim. The appeals court downplayed the Hornes’ losses because they only involved “personal property” — not “real property” such as land. The decision stressed that “the Hornes did not lose all economically valuable use of their personal property,” presumably since the feds did not take all their raisins.
The Obama administration has continually shifted its legal defense and now claims that there are no “takings” because of arcane paperwork shuffles regarding raisin ownership built into federal law. Apparently, federal action should not count as a seizure of property unless a SWAT team storms into the farm’s packing shed and commandeers the raisins at gunpoint. The Justice Department also asserts that federal dictates do not violate raisin farmers’ rights because they “can avoid the reserve requirement of the Marketing Order by … planting different crops” or, presumably, by going to law school and becoming a federal lawyer who champions seizing farmers’ crops.
In the same way that the Obama administration denied that Obamacare would penalize individuals without health insurance, it is now claiming that the Agriculture Department’s seizures of raisins do not harm farmers. The Justice Department’s brief asserts that “the net effect of the reserve-pool requirement is to raise the value of a producer’s raisins as a whole, by stabilizing the market price of raisins and increasing revenues from the sale” of the remainder of the crop. But for this to be true, the regulatory scheme would have to double the price of raisins in some years.
As often happens, the feds are strangling an industry they claim to protect. Acreage devoted to raisin production has fallen almost a quarter since 2000 and per capita raisin consumption is down almost 50 percent since 1989.
In its brief filed on Dec. 7, the Obama administration claimed that the “marketing order’s fair and proven measures for stabilizing the raisin market” are overwhelmingly supported by raisin growers. However, the brief failed to disclose that the super-heavyweight of the raisin industry, Sun Maid, formally requested on Nov. 17 that the secretary of agriculture end all volume controls on raisin sales. Sun Maid, whose 650 farmers account for almost 30 percent of California raisin production, concluded that “producers will suffer economic harm” from perpetuating archaic restrictions on marketing.
The Agriculture Department’s controls are sowing chaos. Sun Maid points out that “there is no short-term or long-term predictability regarding the marketing of a [raisin] crop because of the potential volume regulation provisions. Producers have great difficulty in projecting potential future revenue,” which makes it more difficult “to obtain credit financing to cover production expenses.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas stated that “we are not aware of that [Sun Maid] petition,” and that “Our publicly filed brief speaks for itself as to the government’s comment on the case.” Perhaps the Obama administration is hoping for a speedy ruling from the Supremes before far more raisin farmers publicly condemn the supposedly wise, benevolent regulatory regime.
The Supreme Court is expected decide on Jan. 12 whether to hear the Hornes’ challenge to the government’s right to confiscate their harvest. Will the Obama administration’s attempt to redefine property rights into a meaningless vapor succeed? Is the Agriculture Department entitled to continue controlling farmers and markets regardless of how much damage bureaucrats wreak? The result of this case will reverberate far beyond the nation’s farms.
• James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006) and “Lost Rights” (St. Martin’s, 1994).