Nine Stories of Baby Ninths: Nine—Grapes of Wrath
[This is the ninth in a series of nine posts on nine stories of how Baby Ninth Amendments made a difference in real cases. They’re part of the lead-up to the publication of the book Baby Ninth Amendments: How Americans Embraced Unenumerated Rights and Why It Matters]
“Upon this appeal, the facts as alleged in the complaint and as disclosed by such records must be accepted as true. The story so told reads like a sequel to Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’”
With these lines in its opening paragraph you’d expect the Minnesota Supreme Court to be winding up for quite a tale. And in its opinion in Thiede v. Town of Scandia Valley (1944) it didn’t disappoint. Along the way it set down one of the strongest precedents for unenumerated rights in Minnesota’s history, if not America’s. It’s not quite the epic of the Joad family, but perhaps in one way it’s a better one because it really happened. (At least, as the facts were alleged in the complaint, as the court said.) And I recently learned it had a happy ending. Even though it concerns town officials forcibly throwing a family out of their home in the depths of a northern Minnesota winter.
The story begins in the depths of the Great Depression. Children of immigrant families to the Upper Midwest, Louis Thiede and Louise Harbeke married in 1930 and for several years tried scratching out a living farming in eastern North Dakota. In March 1935, with little kids in tow, they moved to central Minnesota. There they bounced around a bit, living in a couple towns in Todd County, Minnesota, including Fawn Lake, and also living at times in Scandia Valley in nearby Morrison County. Eventually, in October 1938 they moved back to Scandia Valley, and there they stayed through the time of the court case. In fact, in 1939 they purchased a 40-acre tract and built a small house. That was their home when the legal controversies arose. (These different counties and the frequent moves would become bizarrely consequential.)
Beginning in December 1936 the Thiedes intermittently received poor relief from both counties at various times. “Surplus commodities” was how the court described it, which likely meant they accepted food when they didn’t have anything for themselves. In addition, Louis worked for the WPA for a few years and received some earnings in return.
Due to the way Minnesota’s poor relief laws were written, the Thiedes frequent moves coupled with their decision to take relief made things bureaucratically complicated for the local officials in charge of their relief. The full details aren’t important here but essentially a family was only supposed to receive relief from a jurisdiction if they had lived there for a year before going on relief. Through the quirks of their moves this happened to be Fawn Lake.
In 1942, even though they had been in Scandia Valley for four years and (it appears from the opinion) even though they hadn’t received any relief from Fawn Lake in about three years, “a dispute arose between the towns of Scandia Valley and Fawn Lake as to the legal settlement of the Thiede family.” The towns actually went to court to figure this out. Meanwhile, the Thiedes completely stopped receiving any kind of poor relief. Nevertheless, the dispute continued and eventually Fawn Lake gave notice to Scandia Valley that it was terminating its responsibility to provide for the Theides unless within 30 days they were removed from Scandia Valley and re-settled in Fawn Lake. In other words, unless they voluntarily moved or were forced to.
By the time this notice was given, in early 1943, the family hadn’t taken a dime in relief from any arm of government for almost a year. So given that they were about to have lived in Scandia Valley without relief for long enough to have a new “legal settlement,” it all sounds pretty technical and nothing would happen. Right?
It turned out to be anything but technical. Upon receiving the notice from Fawn Lake, Scandia Valley officials sprang to action. They served a notice on the family, ordering them to move to Fawn Lake within 10 days. The family understandably refused to obey this, being that they weren’t on relief and, most importantly, owned their 40-acres free-and-clear and by this time had six children of various ages, all under 12.
But the town officials wouldn’t budge. They went to the county sheriff with an order requiring him to remove the family and their personal property. And so he and a few minions did.
They did so, as the court described, “with force and violence.” The sheriff even moved their livestock and farm machinery. They and their belongings were dumped “in the farm yard of” Louis’s mother in Fawn Lake.
It was late February and early March 1943. (It seems the job took the sheriff a few days.) The court describes it as “sub-zero.” (Fahrenheit, of course.) And a look at the historical weather data for Brainerd, Minnesota (only a few miles away) bears that out. During that period it got below zero several times, with a then-record -24 degrees for the date of March 2nd.
The sheriff and his personnel damaged the Thiede’s house and out-buildings. The family claimed they suffered from “extreme exposure” and “great mental anguish,” among other injuries. Funnily enough, the family moved back to their home only a few days later, perhaps after the sheriff and others had realized they had overacted and wouldn’t do it again. Not long after that Mrs. Thiede took them and the town to court. The trial judge preliminarily ruled for her but because it was an important issue certified the question for appeal to the state high court.
“Every man’s house is his castle”
Most of the time when you read a court opinion, even one about constitutional matters, it’s pretty level-headed. There might be an attempt at humor here or there, but there aren’t deep reservoirs of emotion. Of course, many famous cases make for an exception, and Thiede is one of those counterexamples. Outrage pours out of every word. Justice Thomas O. Streissguth, writing for a unanimous court, was angry and wasn’t afraid to show it.
He started his legal analysis with first principles: “The entire social and political structure of America rests upon the cornerstone that all men have certain rights which are inherent and inalienable.” What are those rights? He listed them broadly, and quoted Thomas Cooley’s assertion that “These Instruments measure the powers of rulers, but they do not measure the rights of the governed.” He noted that the Minnesota Constitution recognizes some rights but “does not attempt to enumerate” them all. Instead, “It, however, significantly, provides: ‘The enumeration of rights in this constitution shall not be construed to deny or impair others retained by and inherent in the people.’ (Art. 1, § 16.)” That, as you might have guessed, and sitting at the core of the court’s analysis, is Minnesota’s Baby Ninth Amendment.
Streissguth continued by stressing the age-old saying that “Every man’s house is his castle.” It “is more than an epigram. It is a terse statement, in language which everyone should understand, of a legal concept older even than Magna Charta.” And from this and other sources he stated that the right to occupy one’s freehold is a fundamental liberty. That right, he reasoned, cannot be taken away through the mere fact that a family has accepted relief in the past.
The opinion went on to discuss relief and the government’s interests when providing it, but the bottom line was that the Scandia Valley officials, and the state statute they relied upon, were unconstitutional because they violated this basic right of occupying one’s property.
Justice Streissguth also addressed the ability of Louise Thiede—the only named plaintiff—to sue for damages, and the court said they were available against the officials because they were not shielded with sovereign immunity. He even invoked Article I, Section 8 of the Minnesota Constitution, which guarantees that “Every person is entitled to a certain remedy in the laws for all injuries or wrongs which he may receive in his person, property, or character.” “These words were not inserted in the constitution as a matter of idle ceremony or as a ‘string of generalities’ . . . and must be respected even by public officers.” [For civil rights lawyers reading, that’s a handy quote to use in the future.]
The grapes of plenty
I was unable to find out what happened in the litigation after the case was remanded. Perhaps it went to trial and no one appealed the judgment or perhaps it settled. The Minneapolis Star (a paper that years later merged to form today’s Star Tribune)thought the opinion a good drama, with a front-page headline: “Evicted Family Wins ‘Grapes of Wrath’ Decision”.
What I was able to do is find out what happened to the family. The eight children (more were born after the lawsuit) went on to various successful endeavors after their modest beginnings. A number of them at one point worked for Northwest Airlines in different ways. And one of them, Paul Thiede, even served in the state legislature for a few terms after graduating from college and working as a journalist, and also served on his county board for 16 years!
I reached out and briefly spoke to him when writing this story. I asked, among other things, if the “Grapes of Wrath” reference in the opinion was a bit overblown and whether the family wasn’t actually that hard up. He said, though, that that characterization wasn’t too far from the mark. Times were tough, especially during the Depression (before he was born) and even when he was growing up they didn’t have running water. Indeed, he didn’t have it all the way through high school. He also said when he got to college a professor didn’t believe him when he wrote about what it was like growing up.
Today the Thiede case stands as the clearest expression of almost any opinion about the American maxim that our constitutions do not contain all of our rights and that it is the job of the courts to protect all of our rights. It also makes for a firm statement of principal that our constitutions allow our courts to find government officials liable for damages when they violate those rights. We’ve cited Thiede a number of times in our cases at the Institute for Justice. And we’ll continue to do so, especially when litigating those rights “retained by and inherent in the people.”
Anthony Sanders is the Director of the Center for Judicial Engagement at the Institute for Justice.