A post-World War II-era program that forces raisin producers to give part of their annual crop to the government could soon be a relic of history. Several Supreme Court justices expressed doubts this week that federal officials can legally take raisins away from farmers without full payment even if the goal is to help boost overall market prices. Two California farmers claim the program is prohibited by the Constitution, which forbids the taking of private property without "just compensation." During a one-hour argument, most of the justices seemed to agree. Justice Antonin Scalia compared it to old-style Soviet central planning, while Justice Elena Kagan called it a "weird historical anomaly."
The seeds of the case were sown in 2001 when Marvin and Laura Horne, raisin farmers in Fresno, decided they had had enough of a program they viewed as outdated and ineffective. The US Department of Agriculture had been authorized by law in 1937 to keep commodity prices, including those for raisins, steady by managing supply. A marketing order issued in 1949 allows a Raisin Administrative Committee to decide how much of the crop raisin handlers must turn over each year. What the government takes, called reserves, are sold outside the open market or donated to federal agencies, charities, or foreign governments. Profits from reserve sales are used to fund the costs of running the committee, and any excess goes back to the producers.