Raisin Redux

by John Lawrence

Nearly two years ago, in one of the earlier blogs on this site, I focused attention on Marvin Horn, a California raisin farmer who had insisted on his God-given (and legally protected) right to grow grapes for raisins in unlimited quantities.

Horn had run afoul of Marketing Order 989 which gave the autocrats of the shriveled grape industry, aka the Raisin Administrative Committee, the extraordinary power to restrict how he could sell his own crop. (“The Raisin Mavens,” Aug. 21, 2013)  Horn, like Carl Pescosolido, an independent orange grower on whose behalf I had worked in Congress decades ago, was fighting back against a 1937 federal law that allows growers of certain agricultural commodities to order growers to limit sales in order to keep prices high (or, laughably, to protect consumers from unwholesome fruit).

In my blog, I noted, “So, over 30 years later, here is Marvin Horn and the raisin revolt.  According to the reports on NPR, the raisin politburo is not taking Marvin’s protest lying down; they’ve gone to war with him, hiring detectives to spy on his activities, and hauled him into federal court.”

Well, they may have hauled Horn into court for defying the raisin bran, uh, ban, but it was all in vine, I mean, in vain. In a remarkably clear and unambiguous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 8-1 that the flow-to-market restrictions exercised by the raisin regulators is an unconstitutional taking of private property. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority decision, declared that the government must pay “just compensation” when it sanctions the seizure of private property, even if it is little shriveled-up fruit. (He didn’t exactly put it that way, but that was the general thrust of the decision.)

Many of those doing a happy dance over this ruling are conservatives who cheer the limitations imposed on government’s ability to take private property. But it should be remembered that the orange litigation three decades ago was promoted by progressive consumer activists including San Francisco’s Public Advocates. As a result of the battle of the oranges (which included serving the alleged “inferior quality” fruit in the House Members’ Dining Room), the quantity portions of the orange ban were terminated. Now, raisins must live in the free market world as well, unprotected by federal laws that are, in other cases, so roundly condemned by the agriculture industry. However, our nation’s farms are still not free: quantity restrictions still might apply on several remaining products including prunes, dates, and almonds from California (the latter slurping up a gallon of precious water for every nut), as well as tart cherries, walnuts and spearmint oil. We will watch carefully to see if Congress or USDA acts to end these market restrictions based on the Horn case.

Meanwhile, there was one other important feature of the Horn decision. Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted with the majority, took exception to a suggestion by his Brethren, Stephen Breyer, who called for a lower court to review whether money might have been owed to Horn. Thomas, not known for his witty sayings, or any sayings, for that matter, opined that sending the case back to a trial court would be a “fruitless exercise.” Hopefully, when the Court issues its upcoming opinions on marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act, we will all still be inclined to smile.