Grape growers can now sue the USDA

On Monday, the Supreme Court conspicuously declined to review a case that will now stand in the favor of growers who want to sue the U.S. Department of Agriculture California Table Grape Commission over grapevine patents — to which I say, good. McClatchy reports:

In a decision noteworthy for farmers nationwide, the high court declined to review a lower court’s ruling that waived USDA’s customary immunity from lawsuits. The decision, issued without comment, effectively upholds the earlier appellate ruling and gives a green light for further legal battle over the “Scarlet Royal” and “Autumn King” grapevine variety patents.

“It’s part of an effort by growers to curtail the power grab by the table grape commission,” Lawrence Hadley, an attorney for the growers who are challenging the patents, said Monday. “Our clients believe the grape commission has overextended its authority, to really insert itself into private industry and become more of a regulatory body instead of a promotions program.” …

“They deserve to be sued,” prominent Visalia, Calif.-area grape grower and nursery owner Luther J. Khachigian said Monday. “They don’t belong in the nursery business . . . they’re interfering in a business they don’t know anything about.” …

The potential implications also could extend beyond California’s $1.4 billion-a-year table grape industry, as federal agencies control many patents.

I know it seems like a pretty small thing that directly affects relatively few people, and that’s because it is, but the Department of Agriculture is exactly that — a convoluted bureaucracy chock-full of a bunch of miniscule, highly specific rules and regulations that serve to benefit particular producers, and just understanding table grape patents isn’t necessarily the takeaway here.

The federal government can’t generally be sued unless Congress has waived their traditional sovereign immunity, but the USDA and its auxiliaries’ many farm programs have long since ceased to be of any meaningful use to the American economy at large (and I’m not convinced that, even in the New-Deal days, they were ever of any productive use). The USDA wastes billions of taxpayer dollars every year doling out what is essentially corporate welfare (most of their subsidies go to large agribusinesses, not family farms), imposing tariffs and regulations that directly distort free-market signals and make food more expensive, and enforcing what are basically rackets in areas like the dairy industry and crop-insurance business.

The central planning and countless cost-consuming middlemen constantly spinning out of the USDA’s top-down rulebook too often manage to easily fly beneath the radar, and while this specific case may only be to the benefit of a few and be delving into tricky patent laws, I’m thinking that the more precedent that citizens have at their disposal to challenge the USDA’s economic hubris, the better.