Court Battles

Supreme Court hears clash between California farm owners, labor unions

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The Supreme Court on Monday weighed a challenge by California farm owners to a state law that gives union organizers access to agricultural lands for part of the year, hearing arguments in a potential landmark case over the scope of private property rights.

The hourlong telephone argument did not provide a clear signal about how the court would ultimately rule on whether California’s regulation amounts to a government “taking” of land that entitles the businesses to compensation.

The challengers to the California law were Cedar Point Nursery and Fowler Packing Co., two companies that grow and ship strawberries, grapes and citrus fruits nationwide, employing thousands of workers including many hired on a seasonal basis.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett said both sides “have line-drawing problems,” referring to the tradeoffs attendant to both California’s push for the court to decide such disputes on a more flexible case-by-case basis, as well as a stricter legal test favored by the business community.

At issue in the case is a pro-labor California law that grants access to organizers for 120 days out of the year to educate farmworkers about the benefits of unions. At the time of its passage in 1975, many seasonal workers lived at their worksites and lacked access to phones, meaning face-to-face contact on farm property was the only means of interaction.

Beyond the immediate facts of Monday’s clash, the case presented the justices with a question that has bedeviled the courts for decades: When does a government regulation go so far as to amount to the taking of property, which under the Fifth Amendment gives an owner the right to payment?

The lawyer for the challengers to the law, Joshua Thompson, argued the companies are owed money on account of the heavy burdens imposed by California’s regulation, which denies his clients the right to exclude union organizers from their property for a substantial part of the year.

That argument faced pushback from some of the justices.

Elena Kagan, an Obama appointee who is one of the court’s more liberal members, allowed that a right to exclude is “one of the sticks in the bundle that a property owner has.” But such a right, she said, does not typically form the basis of the kind of Fifth Amendment claim at issue here.

“I don’t think, like, the denial of a right to exclude counts as a discrete interest in property,” Kagan said.

Justice Samuel Alito, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush and is one of the most conservative justices on the bench, asked how deeply rooted the growers’ legal theory was, questioning Thompson about when their property interest first arose in the eyes of the law.

“Is this a question of whether it’s a property interest under California law today,” Alito asked. “Or is it a question whether it would be regarded as a property interest at the time of the adoption of the Fifth Amendment, or is it something else?”

Defending the California law was Michael Mongan, the state’s solicitor general. 

He urged the court to resolve the case using what he called the “standard ad hoc” approach of weighing the benefits of a particular regulation against its specific burdens — rather than adopt the “blunt instrument” of a strict rule.

Interest groups backing California also warned the court in amicus briefs against adopting a categorical rule regarding private property protections. Such an approach, they cautioned, could have sweeping implications that make it harder to lawfully carry out inspections on everything from food products to coal mines.

Some of the court’s more moderate conservatives — including Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a Trump appointee — signaled an openness to preserving a case-by-case approach. Though others, like Barrett, said these applications are often “stacked in favor of regulations.”

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in 2019 sided with California’s pro-labor law.

A decision in the lawsuit, Cedar Point Nursery v. Victoria Hassid (No. 20-107), is expected before the term ends in late June. 

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Brett Kavanaugh California Elena Kagan farming regulations Samuel Alito SCOTUS Supreme Court Unions
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