The Supreme Court on Monday gave a California raisin-growing couple another chance to defend their claim that the government violated their constitutional rights by fining them after they refused to obey Depression-era crop mandates.
In a unanimous ruling, the high court sent the case back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, saying it had incorrectly ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to hear a particular defense brought forth by the couple suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The case arose in 2002 and was brought forth by Marvin and Laura Horne, who have grown raisins in California's Central Valley since 1969 under the Raisin Valley Farms brand.
That year the Hornes complained that Agricultural Marketing Agreement Program and California Raisin Marketing Order were unconstitutional.
The programs were created in the 1930s as a means to stabilize prices by limiting the supply of raisins on the market. The federal government can mandate that raisin growers not bring to market excess raisins in order to keep prices from fluctuating wildly.
The Hornes, however, ignored the order and were fined. They argued that their 5th Amendment rights were violated when the government fined them for not surrendering their required portion of raisins under the marketing order.
In a 2002 letter to the secretary of agriculture and the Raisin Administrative Committee, a group that includes producers and handlers, the Hornes wrote:
"The Marketing Order Regulating Raisins has become a tool for grower bankruptcy, poverty and involuntary servitude... We will not relinquish ownership of our crop. We put forth the money and effort to grow it, not the Raisin Administrative Committee. This is America, not a communist state."
The Supreme Court ruled that the Hornes do not need to pay the fine before challenging the constitutionality of the fine.
"In the case of an administrative enforcement proceeding, when a party raises a constitutional defense to an assessed fine, it would make little sense to require the party to pay the fine in one proceeding and then turn around and sue for recovery of that same money in another proceeding," wrote Justice Clarence Thomas for the court.
In an analysis of the opinion, legal scholar Lyle Denniston said the ruling could have a broad impact, even outside of the agricultural sector.
"If the government has less authority to impose monetary fines and penalties for failing to obey its regulatory mandates, that will diminish its authority to issue those mandates in the first place," Denniston wrote for the ScotusBlog.
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