Horne v. Department of Agriculture

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a very interesting property rights case, Horne v. USDA, that concerns the taking of raisins.

Horne’s history begins all the way back in 1937, when Congress passed the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 (AMAA), which allows the Secretary of Agriculture to impose production quotas on products in an effort to protect farmers from fluctuations in the market. The production quotas are imposed on “handlers” – those who process and package the product for distribution to consumers. Such an order, “The Raisin Marketing Order of 1949”, required that a percentage of raisins must be turned over to the government every year to maintain a reserve tonnage. Yes, we have a strategic raisin reserve.

Fast forward a few decades, and we find Marvin and Laura Horne, who are raisin farmers in California. The Hornes were thus subject to the 1949 raisin marketing order. Under this order, a board of bureaucrats, the Raisin Administrative Committee, decides what the “proper yield” of raisins should be in order to meet a centrally agreed-upon price. The board estimates the size the annual crop, and then orders all raisin farmers to turn over a portion of their crop to the raisin handlers mentioned above. The handlers (also known as packers) then place the raisins reserve pool. These reserve raisins cannot be sold in the U.S., but the handlers can later sell them overseas at discounted prices, or into school lunch prices (there also a deeply discounted rate).

Under the AMAA, the farmers are supposed to receive a percentage of the money made from the sale of the reserve pool raisins. Profit margins dwindled over the years, however, and with them, the return to the farmers. 2003 marked a turning point in this story, when the farmers were forced to turn over forty-seven (47!) percent of their crop, and received a total of zero dollars in return.

The Hornes feared that their business couldn’t survive, giving up 47 percent of their produce for no money, so they reorganized their business. They began packing and selling their own raisins, hoping that doing so would allow them to circumvent the marketing order. [Many other raisin farmers followed the Hornes’ lead, and began to pack and sell their own raisins.] The government did not approve of this move. The USDA levied huge fines against the Hornes, and also charged them for the raisins that they had not surrendered. You can see a short (about 7 minute) video wherein the Hornes and their lawyer talk about the case, here.

The Hornes sued in federal court, alleging that the marketing order amounted to an unconstitutional taking in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The District Court in which the case was first heard, and then the Ninth Circuit on appeal both held that this was a matter of unpaid fines, and not a takings. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding (9-0) in Horne v. Department of Agriculture 569 U.S. ___ (2012) that there was a potential takings here, and the case could be adjudicated as such. In other words, the Takings Clause can be a valid defense in actions regarding government mandated transfers of funds. [To be very clear, the earlier case (decided in 2012) and the current case (to be heard on April 22, 2015) have the same name.]

By agreeing to hear the case again, this time on the merits (the substance of the dispute), the Supreme Court is agreeing to answer three important questions: first, does the recognized “categorical duty” under the Fifth Amendment to pay just compensation when “physically takes possession of an interest in property” apply to personal property, or only to real property? Second, can government avoid paying just compensation by “allowing” the owner to reserve a portion of the property’s value? And third, does a government mandate to hand over a specific property as a “condition” to engage in commerce amount to a per se taking?

These are very important questions – thus this is a very important case – for those of us interested in the politics and law of property. And the Court’s answer to these questions will reverberate far beyond the raisin farms of California, whichever way they decide. Oral arguments are scheduled for April 22, 2015. Tune in, as we’ll have commentary on the arguments as quickly as possible thereafter.

If you’re interested in hearing the arguments for yourself, you can find them here. If you’d like to read more about this case, SCOTUSBlog has some good coverage, and Oyez has a good summary of the 2012 decision.

 

Reading Around the Internet: September 22, 2014

Land Rights and Sustainability

A recent report by Rights and Resources and presented at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples argues that recognizing the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples living in tropical areas must include securing their rights to their land and thus, to their livelihood, and that this would not only help indigenous peoples economically, but would also help to maintain the forests. As the report states, “Secure local land rights are increasingly recognized as a low-cost strategy to reduce forest carbon emissions; a means to reduce financial risk to investments and secure a sustainable supply of commodities; and a basic human right of the people whose lives and livelihoods rely on local resources.”

Vulnerable Populations and Property Rights

An interesting story from the Asia Foundation discusses various property rights issues that have emerged in Asia. They write that there are key areas that are impacted when land tenure is insecure: “displaced women in conflict and post-conflict countries, urban land tenure for youth, and innovative technologies improving land tenure for vulnerable populations.” This echoes both the report mentioned above written by Rights and Resources and another I had blogged about published by the Open Society Institute a few months ago. Taken all together, there is an emerging consensus among advocates worldwide that property rights matter to a stable and healthy society in part because they protect some of the most vulnerable people in a society.

Volcanoes

Yes indeed, here’s my obsession again: The Washington Post had a fascinating story this weekend about volcanologists — no, they are not people who study Vulcans. They study volcanoes…  Sometimes, this involves running and finding cover as hot ash and red-hot rocks fly at them. Sometimes they get to stand back in awe and just watch. No matter what, they have interesting jobs. The story is great and covers some of the current volcanic activity and includes some beautiful and dramatic photos.