The Fifth Amendment provides that “private property” shall not “be taken for public use, without just compensation.” When I wrote my book, The Original Constitution, I had to address the question of whether the Fifth Amendment phrase “private property” referred only to real estate or whether it included movable goods and other personal property.
The answer is not clear from the text, because the historical record shows that in another part of the Constitution (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2) the word “property” refers only to land.
Accordingly, I canvassed the history relevant to “takings.” I found an Anglo-American tradition of compensating for seizures of personal property that extended back to Magna Carta and continued to the time the Constitution was drafted. I concluded, therefore, that the Fifth Amendment protected a right to be compensated for all property taken.
This past week, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the same record and arrived at the same result. In Horne v. Department of Agriculture, the Court ruled that when the federal government required farmers to turn over a large share of their raisin crop to the government in exchange for the “privilege” of selling raisins, it had to compensate for the taking.
Interestingly enough, all nine justices appear to have agreed on that point. Their disagreements extended to other, technical points of takings law and procedure.
The Horne case provides us with at least two takeaways. First, the Court’s opinion offers an insight into federal actions that one might describe as downright tyrannical. The case arose because the Horne family of raisin farmers was fined for failing to comply with a federal regulation—the Raisin Marketing Order—issued under a New Deal-era statute.
The Raisin Marketing Order had absolutely nothing to do with public health or safety. Rather, it was part of a program designed to increase the price of raisins to consumers.
In one of the two years reviewed by the Court, the feds seized 47 percent of all the raisins grown in the United States. In the second year, they seized 30 percent. The feds disposed of the raisins as they pleased—selling some and using the proceeds to subsidize exporters; refunding some proceeds to farmers one year, but not the next; and keeping the rest for “administration.”
When the Horne family refused to cooperate with this abomination, the government fined them nearly $700,000 and dragged them through the judicial system for over ten years! If more people were aware that the government was acting that way, we would have a very different government.
The second takeway is how the case highlights the enormous debt our constitutional system owes to Magna Carta—the venerable English Medieval charter whose 800th birthday is being celebrated this year. Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion explained how Magna Carta offered protection against uncompensated takings, thereby embedding the principle of compensation in Anglo-American jurisprudence. Justice Roberts did not mention another important fact: that Magna Carta granted this protection not only to the nobility, but to all free persons and, to some extent, even to serfs.
The kind of “pay to play” extortion inherent in the government’s Raisin Marketing Order was a major reason behind Magna Carta. Like the federal government, King John demanded money from innocent people before they could do things they had the right to do anyway. Magna Carta took a strong stand against that kind of extortion.
Maybe it’s time for modern Americans to take that stand as well.
Rob Natelson, a former constitutional law professor, is Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver. His constitutional articles are frequently cited in the U.S. Supreme Court by justices and parties.