ROGUE RAISIN farmer Marvin Horne owes the U.S. governmenthundreds of dollars in unpaid fines and millions of pounds of raisins.
Mr. Horne and his wife have been drying grapes in Fresno, Calif., since 1969. In 2002, the couple began intentionally violating a federal law that enables the Agriculture Department to enforce the seizure of a portion of every California raisin farmer’s annual crop, in certain years as much as 47 percent, without a right to compensation, and in some years with no compensation at all. The seized raisins are stored in California warehouses for months or years and then sold to handlers who distribute and sell them on the world market. Some find their way into government-supplied school lunches or into distilleries where they are used in alcohol. The intent of the New Deal-era law was to prevent a raisin glut and to use the generated revenues to benefit farmers, often by paying for raisin-promoting ad campaigns overseas.
In response to a USDA administrative enforcement proceeding against him, Mr. Horne and members of his family filed a lawsuit to claim that government seizure of farmers’ raisins without compensation is unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment, no matter what benefit farmers may gain by the sale of the seized raisins. “They took our raisins and they didn’t pay for them,” Mr. Horne told The Post’s David Fahrenthold. In June, the Supreme Court heard Mr. Horne’s case and sent it back to a federal appeals court to review the constitutionality of the raisin seizures; previously the lower court had ruled that it didn’t have jurisdiction.
In that hearing, Supreme Court justices showed both amusement and concern. “Your raisins or your life,” joked Justice Antonin Scalia about the penalties Mr. Horne faces. Justice Elena Kagan questioned whether it may be “just the world’s most outdated law,” and Justice Stephen Breyer said, “I can’t believe Congress wanted the taxpayers to pay for a program that’s going to mean they have to pay higher prices.”
The law is one of 27 marketing orders that originated with the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, which aimed to boost farmers’ marketplace power by collectively stabilizing prices for the benefits of producers and consumers. These laws are relics of a long-gone era, when farms were smaller and more numerous than they are today. The success of the raisin program was measured most recently in 2010, in a Cornell University study; it determined that the committee’s practices effectively maintained the domestic price of raisins at the same time that it used its resources to promote and grow international markets for California raisins.
Nonetheless, that study does not prove the raisin marketing order is worth the cost it imposes on farmers such as Marvin Horne; nor does it prove the law benefits U.S. customers, who are presumably charged inflated prices for raisins. We’re glad Mr. Horne will get a chance to have his case heard on its merits, but whatever the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit decides, Congress should reconsider the wisdom of this price-inflating law.