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Supreme Court lets lower court ruling stand on constitutionality of grape commission

by Rand Green | October 07, 2010
FRESNO, CA — A 14-year legal challenge to the constitutionality of the state law establishing the California Table Grape Commission was resolved Oct. 5 in favor of the commission when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a lower-court ruling.

The plaintiffs who filed the original complaint have contended that the law establishing the commission and authorizing its programs was in violation of the First Amendment, but the U.S. Court of Appeals in November 2009 upheld an earlier U.S. District Court ruling rejecting the First Amendment challenge.

According to an Oct. 5 press release from the commission, "the plaintiffs in the case asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision, but the Supreme Court today announced that it would not do so. As a result, the Court of Appeals' decision now marks the final resolution of the case."

The release quotes Kathleen Nave, president of the commission, as saying, “since [the commission’s founding in] 1967, the majority of California’s fresh grape farmers have looked to the commission to help increase demand for their product. Every five years they have voted to continue working together, through the commission, because it makes a difference. This case has been a cloud over their efforts, and it is a welcome relief to finally have it end in their favor.”

The plaintiffs — Delano Farms Co., Lucas Bros. and The Susan Neill Co. — had initially filed suit against the commission in U.S. District Court in Fresno in 1996, holding that being compelled to pay assessments for generic advertising programs for grapes constituted a violation of free speech.

As is often the case, the litigation process has been lengthy and convoluted. At one point, the district court sided with the commission, but that decision was reversed on appeal. The commission then submitted amended arguments maintaining that its activities constituted government speech and were not, therefore, in violation of the First Amendment. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger again ruled in favor of the commission.

According to the commission press release, in that April 2008 ruling, Judge Wanger “rejected a First Amendment challenge to the commission’s programs, concluding, among other things, that the speech of the commission, a creation of the state legislature, is that of the government and therefore immune from constitutional challenge.”

That decision upheld by the Court of Appeals and the just-announced decision of the U.S. Supreme Court not to review the case mean that the 2009 ruling of the Court of Appeals will stand.

The press release quoted Seth Waxman, legal counsel for the commission, as saying, “The Court of Appeals’ decision in favor of the commission is well reasoned and thorough. It definitively holds that the law establishing the commission does not violate the First Amendment.”

Calls to the offices of Clovis, CA, attorney Brian Leighton, who represented the plaintiffs, were not immediately returned. However, an Oct. 6 article in the Fresno Bee stated that Mr. Leighton “said the legal fight is not over,” noting that “a similar case is pending” with the California Supreme Court. Commission President Kathleen Nave was not immediately available to comment on that pending case.