Editorial – The Incredible Raisin Heist

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Stealing is illegal, unless the government is the thief. On Wednesday the Supreme Court will hear a case on whether the government can seize a chunk of a business’s product to regulate prices. This is a big one.

Like much government mischief, Horne v. USDA has its roots in the Great Depression and federal programs to prop up the price of goods by controlling supply. To create raisin scarcity, the government established a Raisin Administrative Committee that manages the supply of raisins through annual marketing orders. Raisin handlers must set aside a portion of their annual crop, which the feds may then give away, sell on the open market, or send overseas.

The Hornes refused to participate, and in a letter to the Agriculture Department they called the program “a tool for grower bankruptcy, poverty, and involuntary servitude.” The raisin police were not amused. The Raisin Administrative Committee sent a truck to seize raisins off their farm and, when that failed, it demanded that the family pay the government the dollar value of the raisins instead.

The Hornes say this raisin toll is an unconstitutional seizure of their property. Under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, “private property” shall not “be taken for public use, without just compensation.” That clause is typically understood to make it illegal for the government to grab houses, cars or even raisins.

The Federal Circuit, which hears many takings cases, as well as the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Tenth and D.C. Circuit Courts of Appeal have all held that the full protection of the Takings Clause does apply to the government seizure of personal property. A farmer should have no less right to the raisins growing on his land than he does to the land itself.

…The Horne case is one of the most significant property rights cases in years—probably since the Court’s infamous 5-4 ruling in 2005 in Kelo v. New London, which allowed the government to take Susette Kelo’s home so a developer could replace it with condos and stores near a Pfizer Corp. office. The majority Justices in Kelo have a lot to answer for. This is a chance to make partial amends.

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