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Workers bag raisins at a co-op in Kerman, Calif. A farmer from the region has taken his fight over a federal raisin law to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Raisin’ an issue over 64-year-old farm law

– In the world of dried fruit, America has no greater outlaw than Marvin Horne, 68.

Horne, a raisin farmer, has been breaking the law for 11 solid years. He now owes the U.S. government at least $650,000 in unpaid fines. And 1.2 million pounds of unpaid raisins, roughly equal to his entire harvest for four years.

His crime? Horne defied one of the strangest arms of the federal bureaucracy – a farm program created to solve a problem during the Truman administration, and never turned off.

He said no to the national raisin reserve.

“I believe in America. And I believe in our Constitution. And I believe that eventually we will be proved right,” Horne said recently, sitting in an office next to 20 acres of ripening Thompson grapes. “They took our raisins and didn’t pay us for them.”

The national raisin reserve might sound like a fever dream of the Pillsbury Doughboy. But it is a real thing – a 64-year-old program that gives the U.S. government a heavy-handed power to interfere with the supply and demand for dried grapes.

It works like this: In a given year, the government may decide that farmers are growing more raisins than Americans will want to eat. That would cause supply to outstrip demand. Raisin prices would drop. And raisin farmers might go out of business.

To prevent that, the government does something drastic. It takes away a percentage of every farmer’s raisins. Often, without paying for them.

These seized raisins are put into a government-controlled “reserve” and kept off U.S. markets. In theory, that lowers the available supply of raisins and thereby increases the price for farmers’ raisin crops. Or, at least, the part of their crops that the government didn’t just take.

For years, Horne handed over his raisins to the reserve. Then, in 2002, he refused.

Since then, his life has now become a case study in one of Washington’s bad habits – a tendency never to re-examine old laws once they’re on the books. Even ones like this.

When Horne’s case reached the Supreme Court this spring, Justice Elena Kagan wondered whether it might be “just the world’s most outdated law.”

“Your raisins or your life, right?” joked Justice Antonin Scalia.

Last month, the high court issued its ruling and gave Horne a partial victory. A lower court had rejected Horne’s challenge of the law. Now, the justices told that court to reconsider it.

Horne has spent a decade trying to do one of the hardest things in American politics. He is trying to kill a law, by breaking it.

Specifically, Horne is trying to kill Marketing Order 989 – a federal regulation meant to solve a problem from the era after World War II. Peace, it turned out, was bad for raisins.

Then, time passed. Wars came and went. The New Deal faded from memory.

The raisin reserve survived.

Today, it is run by the Raisin Administrative Committee, a Fresno organization made up of industry representatives, but overseen by the Agriculture Department.

In 2002, Horne decided he wouldn’t give those people his raisins anymore.

“The hell with the whole mess,” he says now. “It’s like being a serf.”

In Horne’s case, his lawyer, Brian Leighton, argued that the raisin reserve was flatly unconstitutional. The Fifth Amendment says that private property may not be taken without just compensation.

Horne tried that argument on an Agriculture Department hearing officer. He lost.

He appealed that decision. He lost. He appealed to a U.S. district court judge. And lost.

Then he appealed the federal district court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. And lost.

Finally, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. And things changed. The justices seemed sympathetic to Horne. And mystified by the whole idea of the raisin reserve.

“What it does is it takes raisins that we grow – in effect, throws them in the river,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said, puzzling it out. Later, he said, “I can’t believe that Congress wanted the taxpayers to pay for a program that’s going to mean they have to pay higher prices” for raisins.

The court’s ruling, however, didn’t settle the question of whether Horne is right about the law being unconstitutional. Instead, it told the 9th Circuit to settle that question now (the lower court had rejected Horne’s case, saying that a quirk of the raisin law meant it did not have jurisdiction).

So now Horne will have to wait to find out whether the courts see him as a conscientious objector to a bad law. Or as a guy who owes the government enough raisins to fill 3.8 million boxes of Raisin Bran.

“If we lose, we’re bankrupt. We won’t have a pot to piss in,” Horne said. He thinks he would be liable for about $3 million, including fines and the cash value of those raisins. “No. I don’t want to even think about it. Would you?”

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