An IJ Victory Down on the Farm

November 23, 2010

By Anthony Sanders

Farmers and consumers in Lake Elmo, Minn., and across the nation recently won a victory for interstate trade and farming freedom. Thanks to pressure brought to bear by an IJ lawsuit filed in May of this year—as detailed in the August 2010 edition of Liberty & Law—the Lake Elmo City Council repealed its ban on farmers selling produce grown outside the city. Now, farmers may make those sales once they apply for a simple permit.

The change is an important victory not only for our clients, the Bergmann family, who may now keep selling produce grown outside the city as they have done for almost 40 years, but it also protects the right of our out-of-state clients from Wisconsin, Nebraska and North Carolina, who merely wanted to sell their pumpkins and Christmas trees to the Bergmanns. IJ helped the city of Lake Elmo better appreciate that the right to interstate trade is protected by the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

The case demonstrates how pressure from principled litigation can shape legislation. Three months after filing our suit, a federal magistrate judge issued an opinion recommending that our motion for a preliminary injunction be granted. He stated that the city’s ordinance likely “unconstitutionally discriminates against interstate commerce” because it “squelches competition . . . altogether, leaving no room for investment from outside.” Recognizing that the law could have a devastating effect on interstate trade, he stated that the result from enforcement of the law “will be the obliteration of the Lake Elmo markets in pumpkins and Christmas trees. . . . In fact, Plaintiffs have shown that the markets will be wiped out.”

With a likely defeat staring them in the face, city officials made sure that they passed a new ordinance allowing sales of interstate produce, such as the pumpkins and Christmas trees our clients sell, without discriminating in favor of produce grown in-state rather than out-of-state.

IJ’s victory in this case will help farmers in future legal fights tear down government-imposed restrictions on what they may sell on their land. Nationwide, a patchwork of zoning regulations forbids farmers from freely selling their own products to each other and their customers. Some jurisdictions allow farmers to sell only products they grow while others require that no more than a certain percentage of their sales be grown elsewhere. As IJ demonstrated in this case, many of these restrictions have an adverse impact on interstate commerce and unconstitutionally favor local interests over America’s nationwide marketplace. The Institute for Justice will be on the lookout for similar challenges that help us preserve our nation’s long history of free and open trade among the states.

Because of this victory, the Bergmanns and our other clients will not only help their customers celebrate the holidays, but they themselves can celebrate the important role they played in vindicating the kind of free and open marketplace that America’s Founders envisioned.

Anthony Sanders is an IJ Minnesota Chapter staff attorney.

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