Pacific Legal Foundation
Dairy owners ask Supreme Court for the right to challenge federal price-fixing
Sacramento, CA; October 19, 2012: In a petition to be filed today, Arizona dairy owners Hein and Ellen Hettinga ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear key issues in their lawsuit against a government market-fixing law that forces the Hettingas to sell milk to consumers at a higher price than they want to charge.
The law was passed to target them specifically, forcing them to comply with a federal minimum price scheme. In their petition for certiorari, filed today, the Hettingas are asking the Supreme Court to take their case, and ensure that their lawsuit will finally get a fair hearing in the courts, by allowing them to introduce evidence that the price-fixing law was designed solely to single them out for unfavorable treatment and to block them from competing.
The Hettingas are represented by attorneys with donor-supported Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog organization that litigates for limited government and free enterprise in courts nationwide. As with all of its clients, PLF is representing the Hettingas free of charge.
Lower courts wouldn’t permit the Hettingas to make their case
In the Hettinga litigation, lower courts let the federal government off without having to prove its case, and denied the Hettingas a chance to introduce evidence. The trial court and the court of appeals threw out the Hettingas’ lawsuit, accepting the government’s word that the law is “rational,” without requiring any proof for that claim. The courts ruled that whenever the government merely asserts that a law is reasonable, a plaintiff can be denied the opportunity to prove otherwise.
The Hettingas are asking the Supreme Court to require that courts put more teeth in “rational basis” review — the standard that judges apply to economic regulations as well as many other laws — so that challengers may have an opportunity to prove that a regulation is unconstitutional.
“This case is about more than restrictions on dairies and other businesses,” explained Timothy Sandefur, a principal attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, who represents the Hettingas. “This is about whether people challenging the constitutionality of any law can get a fair trial, or whether the government can just recite some magic words and make the case disappear.
“The trial court said that the Hettingas were not even allowed to introduce evidence to prove their case — simply because the government said the law was constitutional,” Sandefur continued. “The government’s mere say-so was deemed sufficient. And that just cannot be right.”
Courts ruled against the Hettingas based on a government “explanation” — not evidence
The Hettingas’ Arizona-based dairy business drew national attention in 2006 when Congress passed a law aimed specifically at them, forcing them to comply with federal price-fixing rules from which they had previously been exempt. The Hettingas filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of that law.
The government filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the law was “rational.” The court agreed. The Hettingas urged the Federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to overrule the trial court because judges are not supposed to make a decision before evidence is introduced. But the appellate court again sided with the government, noting that federal officials had offered “an explanation [for the law] that is ... rational on its face ... .”
“What this means is that the federal government can throw out a lawsuit simply by giving an ‘explanation,’ even if there are no facts or evidence,” said Sandefur. “The courts should at least allow people the chance to prove their cases — but this decision says no.”
Transforming the “rational basis” test into a “government knows best” test
“In lawsuits challenging business regulations, courts apply the ‘rational basis test,’” explained Sandefur. “The plaintiff must prove that the law is unreasonable. While that’s not an easy thing to prove, it can be done. What this decision does is change the ‘rational basis’ rule into a set of magic words that the government can use to get any case against it thrown out of court.”
And because the same “rational basis” test applies to most other constitutional arguments, the court of appeals decision would block most constitutional lawsuits, Sandefur added.
“The court of appeals expanded and transformed the rational basis test, by saying not only that plaintiffs have to prove a law irrational, but that if the government just asserts that the law is okay, that’s enough reason to dismiss the case,” Sandefur continued. “The Supreme Court has never gone that far.”
About Pacific Legal Foundation
Donor-supported Pacific Legal Foundation (www.pacificlegal.org) is a nonprofit public interest watchdog organization that litigates nationwide for limited government, property rights, individual rights, and free enterprise.
PLF’s latest U.S. Supreme Court victory for liberty and limited government was Sackett v. EPA, decided this past spring. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted another PLF challenge to overbearing government regulations, Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District.