Today, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that stands to drastically change the relationship farmers have with the federal government.

The order in Horne, et al. v. Department of Agriculture turned on its head the idea that the government can seize an entire “bundle” of property rights, yet avoid classifying that seizure as a taking as long as they allow the original owners to retain some manner of interest in the property. In 2001, Marvin and Laura Horne challenged that very premise when they decided to withhold portions of their raisin crop that the government mandated be relinquished to the Raisin Administrative Committee (which is indeed a real thing); the Hornes were fined almost a million dollars for their transgressions, but they fought back, arguing that the Committee’s seizure of even a portion of an individual farmer’s crop as a condition of participating in the market constituted an unconstitutional taking.

Today the Court sided with the Hornes, holding that under the 5th Amendment, the Government must pay just compensation when it takes personal property, just as when it takes real property. They said that the “reserve requirement” imposed by the Raisin Administrative Committee constitutes a clear taking, emphasizing the Committee’s requirement that farmers surrender portions of their crop at no charge.

Attorneys for the government argued that this mandate and surrender did not constitute a taking, because farmers retain a contingent interest in the net proceeds of any raisins sold by the Committee; the Court, however, shot down this idea, saying that once a physical taking has occurred, any payment that follows “goes to the question of just compensation.”

The Court also shot down the idea that transactions between the Committee and raisin farmers constitute a “voluntary exchange for a valuable government benefit”:

In one of the years at issue, the Government insisted that the Hornes part with 47 percent of their crop for the privilege of selling the rest. But the abil- ity to sell produce in interstate commerce, although certainly subject to reasonable government regulation, is not a “benefit” that the Gov- ernment may withhold unless growers waive constitutional protec- tions.

Score one for property rights.

The Court split itself in the particulars, with only the 5 most conservative justices siding fully with the Roberts opinion. Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan concurred in part; Thomas wrote his own concurring opinion; Breyer concurred and dissented in part, and was joined by Ginsburg and Kagan; and Sotomayor skidded in sideways with a full-blown dissent, emphasizing the fact that the whole scheme allows for at least some payment for surrendered crops, and holding that “[a] reduction in the value of property is not necessarily equated with a taking.”

It’s a good result; the future of the Committee’s program is under question—if not in jeopardy—and now we have clarification on the rules governing takings of both real and personal property.

We’ll keep you posted on the status of the program as the fallout from Horne settles. For now…have a punny SCOTUS Monday:

You can read the full opinion here.


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