Yuma dairy takes fight over federal price fixing to Supreme Court
A Yuma-area dairy family has taken its fight with the federal government over a milk price-fixing law that it believes singles it out to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a petition filed Friday, Yuma dairy owners Hein and Ellen Hettinga are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear key issues in their lawsuit challenging a federal law that forces the Hettingas to sell milk to consumers at a higher price than they want to charge.
The Milk Regulatory Equity Act of 2005, which the Hettingas say targeted them specifically, requires independent producer-handlers to join a dairy cooperative or pay federal marketing fees. Hettinga is one of only a handful of such producer-handlers remaining in the U.S., and lawmakers were observed making references to a “dairyman in Yuma, Ariz.,” and even mentioning his dairy, Sarah Farms, by name.
Hettinga had been fought by dairy cooperatives in Arizona and other states, arguing that his dairy presents an unfair advantage because he was selling his milk for less.
Since then, the Hettingas have been pursuing a lawsuit against the federal government, challenging the constitutionality of the law. Most recently, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit threw out the case without hearing evidence, accepting the government's word that the law is “rational” without requiring any proof for that claim.
Now 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.
“This case is about more than restrictions on dairies and other businesses,” said 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.”
He continued: “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. The government's mere say-so was deemed sufficient. And that just cannot be right.”
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.”
Pacific Legal Foundation is 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.
“Hettinga is a farmer in business who just wants the government to leave him alone and let him run his business as he sees fit, which is sell milk at a lower price,” Sandefur said. “He has the guts to stand up and challenge what the government did to him in courts ... and the courts won't even let him. I'm just trying to get his day in court.”