WASHINGTON — Dissident California raisin farmers harvested a Supreme Court win Monday, easing future legal challenges to the decades-old program that regulates the raisin marketplace.
In a 9-0 decision that's both technical and important, the court effectively empowered Fresno County farmer Marvin D. Horne and his allies to claim that the industry program takes their property in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
The Fifth Amendment specifies that private property can't "be taken for public use, without just compensation."
"I'm very happy that we got a fair and just decision," Horne said in a telephone interview Monday. "Our Constitution is alive and well."
The decision Monday doesn't eliminate or even directly challenge the California Raisin Marketing Order or the other federal marketing orders that regulate crops, ranging from California almonds to Florida tomatoes to Texas citrus. These orders, authorized by the Agriculture Department but run by farmers, may continue to assess industry fees and set standards, among other activities.
But the 15-page decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas gives a new tool to farmers who are unhappy about how the marketing orders operate. In particular, Horne and other raisin farmers now may argue in federal court that the marketing order's mandatory setting-aside of a certain portion of the raisin crop is a Fifth Amendment taking.
"It means they won't take farmers' raisins and not pay for them," Horne said.
Clovis lawyer Brian Leighton has been representing Horne, as well as other farmers who are unhappy about various marketing orders and promotion programs. Former federal appellate Judge Michael McConnell, who's now a professor at Stanford Law School, argued the case for Horne before the Supreme Court in March.
A federal marketing order has governed the raisin industry since 1949. Concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley, raisin production spanned more than 200,000 acres and reached a value of more than $725 million last year.
The marketing order regulates handlers, who pack and process the raisins. Among other provisions, the order requires that handlers withhold a certain percentage of their crop for a "reserve tonnage" managed by the Fresno-based Raisin Administrative Committee. The set-aside raisins may be sold for purposes such as the federal school-lunch program.
Raisin handlers set aside 47 percent of their crop during the 2002-03 season and 30 percent for 2003-04, but they were paid only for part of what they surrendered.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-0006.