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The Farmer And The Commerce Clause

Jul 5, 2012
Originally published on July 5, 2012 10:25 pm

Last week's Supreme Court ruling on the health care law might have made Roscoe Filburn a little happier.

Filburn was an Ohio dairy farmer who had a beef with the federal government, one he took to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1942. He lost.

The dispute was simple: The federal government said Filburn had grown too much wheat. In an effort to keep the price of wheat from falling — this was just after the Great Depression — the government limited how much wheat farmers could grow under a 1938 law, invoking its constitutional power to regulate interstate trade.

The government said Filburn could grow 11 acres. The farmer went out and planted twice that much.

Yes, he figured, he grew wheat. But he just fed it to his chickens. He didn't sell any of it across state lines. He didn't sell it at all. It never left his farm.

Jim Chen, dean of the University of Louisville School of Law, says you can understand Filburn's point of view. "I'm a chicken guy!" Chen says. "I'm a fourth- or fifth-generation farmer. You are bunch of pointy-headed economic idiots with economic charts and equations in Washington, D.C. And you know nothing about what it means to grow wheat. You can go to hell."

The feds tried to fine Filburn, and he fought all the way to the Supreme Court. It would turn out to be one of the most influential cases in history.

That's because the court ruled that the government could limit how much wheat Filburn, and other farmers, could grow. It could fine them for growing too much. Filburn may not have bought or sold any wheat, but he still affected the wheat market: Every extra bushel he grew was a bushel he didn't buy. In some small way, that moved the price of wheat.

And here's the parallel to the health care case: Roscoe Filburn didn't buy or sell wheat, yet the Commerce Clause still applied. What about people who didn't buy health insurance? Could it be applied there?

The Supreme Court last week said no, it didn't apply. Americans can be required to buy health insurance, just not under the Commerce Clause. Chief Justice Roberts argued that there's a difference between activity and inactivity. Filburn was actively growing wheat. But people not buying health insurance, aren't doing anything. (The court invoked the government's taxing authority to uphold the health-care requirement instead.)

Filburn died in 1987. His grandson, Gerald Spurgeon, said he didn't even know his grandfather had been part of a monumental Supreme Court case until after he died. "He never talked about it," Spurgeon says. "No, he wasn't talkative. ... He was a farmer."

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When the Supreme Court ruled, last week, that, yes, the federal government can require people to buy health insurance or pay a fine, the Court did not allow it, as many had expected, under the commerce clause of the Constitution. In fact the court ruled the commerce clause does not give the government that power.

The decision would have made Roscoe Filburn very happy. He was a farmer from Ohio who took a related case all the way to the Supreme Court but lost.

Here is David Kestenbaum with our Planet Money team.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Roscoe Filburn was a farmer with strong views of right and wrong. So when the government passed a law in 1938 that tried to limit how much wheat he could grow on his land that felt very, very wrong to him.

The purpose of the law was to try to keep the price of wheat from dropping; this was just after the Great Depression. And the commerce clause of the Constitution does give the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce.

But Roscoe's thinking was, look, yes I grow wheat, but I'm just using it feed my chickens. I'm not selling wheat across interstate lines. I'm not selling wheat at all. It never leaves my farm.

Jim Chen is dean of the University of Louisville School of Law. He says you can understand the guy's point of view.

JIM CHEN: I'm a chicken guy - I sell eggs, literally walked in from the barn. Would you like some? It will cost you a dime for a dozen. I'm a fourth or fifth generation farmer. You are bunch of pointy-headed idiots with economic charts and equations in Washington. D.C. And you know nothing about what it means to grow wheat. You can go to hell.

KESTENBAUM: The law says he can only grow 11 acres of wheat. Roscoe Filburn goes out and defiantly plants twice that. The government tries to fine him. There's a court case. And eventually Roscoe Filburn, dairy farmer from Ohio, his case ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court. It would turn out to be one of the most influential cases in history.

The Supreme Court hears arguments and decides - I am going to translate into normal speech here: Sorry, Mr. Filburn, you've got to pay the fine.

It's true you didn't buy or sell any wheat. But you were still affecting the wheat market. Because every extra bushel you grew was a bushel you didn't have to buy, which in some small way affected the price for wheat.

And here's the parallel to the health care case. Roscoe Filburn didn't buy or sell wheat but the commerce clause still applied. What about people who don't buy or sell health insurance, could it be applied there?

The Supreme Court last week ruled people could be forced to buy health insurance, but not under the commerce clause. Chief Justice Roberts argued there was a difference between activity and inactivity. Roscoe Filburn was actively growing wheat, but people not buying health insurance weren't doing anything.

Roscoe Filburn died in 1987. I tracked down his grandson, Gerald Spurgeon, who said he didn't even know his grandfather had been part of a monumental Supreme Court case, until after he died.

GERALD SPURGEON: He never talked about it, nothing.

KESTENBAUM: Was he a talkative guy or a sort of quiet guy?

SPURGEON: No, he wasn't talkative.

KESTENBAUM: He was a farmer, yeah.

SPURGEON: He was a farmer.

KESTENBAUM: Roscoe Filburn eventually sold his farm. He took long vacations in Florida. He liked to fish and beat his grandchildren at checkers.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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