Valley raisin farmers take their battle to the Supreme Court

March 20, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Valley raisin farmers took their battle with the Federal Government all the way to the Supreme Court. It's a fight that's been brewing for decades.

The legal argument is based on a more than 80 year old program, stemming from a great depression era deal that requires farmers to set aside some of their product for the government.

Marvin and Laura Horne, proprietors of Raisin Valley Farms, say the program is unconstitutional. The Horne's told the United States Chamber of Commerce that the United States Department of Agriculture harassed them and told their employees that their raisins were contraband.

Attorneys told Supreme Court Justices on Wednesday morning that the Horne's were asked to deliver California raisins, or hand over what they're worth in cash. At one point, the USDA ordered them to pay $700 thousand.

Sheldon Gilbert, who works for the National Chamber Litigation Center for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce tells Action News, "In other words, if you want to sell your raisins in interstate commerce, the USDA says you have to be willing to give some of those raisins to the federal government at whatever price they say and if that price is zero dollars you have to do that."

Gilbert's organization represents businesses and says it's the voice of business interest in Washington. Gilbert tells Action News, the case isn't just about raisins, or agriculture, it's about property rights. "At its core it's a pretty basic idea- you can't take somebody's raisins without paying for them, that's an idea that even my four year old understood when I explained it to him."

Attorneys representing the Department of Agriculture told the Supreme Court, "They adopted a business model that was an intentional, willful attempt to evade regulatory requirements in order to secure an unfair competitive advantage. Those are handler-specific regulatory obligations that were imposed upon them, and they violated every single one of them willfully and intentionally in order to secure an unfair competitive advantage."

The Justices heard both arguments today, and addressed the great depression era price stabilization program, which is affecting farmers in a modern world, some 80 years after the program was initiated.

Justice Kagan said in open court, "And now, the Ninth Circuit can go and try to figure out whether this marketing order is a taking -- or it's just the world's most outdated law."

Outdated or not, it puts one of the Valley's most valuable crops at the center of the Supreme Court, and could affect the future of agriculture.

The opinion is expected to be issued in June. The Department of Agriculture did not comment, citing ongoing litigation.


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