The Government Has to Pay for the Raisins It Confiscates

The near-unanimous Supreme Court decided today in favor of the farmers whose raisins the federal government wanted to take as part of a cockamamie New Deal-era regulatory scheme. The Court ruled 8-1 in support of Cato’s position that taking personal property is a compensable action, regardless of whether the government purports to act on the property owner’s behalf, and 5-4 on the question of compensation for that taking. (This is two years after the Court ruled 9-0 that the Marvin and Laura Horne could have their day in court and raise their constitutional challenge, rather than being stuck in some byzantine administrative purgatory.)

Of course, it should be rather obvious that when the government takes your property, its actions are subject to the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, which requires that such taking be (a) for a “public use” and (b) subject to the owner receiving “just compensation.” And it should be equally obvious that the Constitution doesn’t distinguish between real property (your house) and personal property (your car). Yet the government insisted here that, at least in the context of agricultural-marketing/price-setting programs, it can take your crops and do whatever it likes with them so long as it’s all hypothetically for your own benefit.

Chief Justice Roberts swatted away that contention. Here are the key paragraphs (pages 4-5 of the slip opinion):

There is no dispute that the “classic taking [is one] in which the government directly appropriates private prop­erty for its own use.” Nor is there any dispute that, in the case of real property, such an appropriation is a per se taking that requires just compensation.

Nothing in the text or history of the Takings Clause, or our precedents, suggests that the rule is any different when it comes to appropriation of personal property. The Government has a categorical duty to pay just compensa­tion when it takes your car, just as when it takes your home. (citations omitted)

There are some other nuggets in the opinion, including a riff on the government’s contention that raisin farmers, to avoid the Raisin Administrative Committee’s attentions, could simply sell wine: “ ‘Let them sell wine’ is probably not much more comfortable to the raisin growers than similar retorts have been to others throughout history.” Moreover, “[r]aisins are not like oysters: they are private property – the fruit of the growers’ labor – not “public things subject to the absolute control of the state.”

In any event, thus the Hornes’ multi-year fight against the U.S. Department of Agriculture ends in a definitive ruling that the USDA cannot assess them nearly half a million dollars for the value of the raisins they refused to relinquish (nor a $200,000 civil penalty that added insult to injury). Let’s not forget that this epochal battle involved two trips to the Supreme Court, where the government only got one of a possible 18 votes.

For more background on the case, see Trevor Burrus’s commentary when we filed our brief. For early reaction to the ruling, see Ilya Somin’s post at the Volokh Conspiracy.