Supreme Court Questions Union Access to Agricultural Company Land

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U.S. Supreme Court justices questioned a California regulation that gives union organizers access to agricultural company land for part of the year to talk to workers, hearing arguments in a case that could bolster constitutional property rights.

In an hour-long telephone session, some of the court’s conservatives expressed skepticism that California could require union access on as many as 120 days a year. Justice Brett Kavanaugh indicated he thought the case was controlled by a 1956 Supreme Court decision permitting access at non-agricultural workplaces only when organizers lack other means of communication.

But other justices indicated they were wary of imposing the type of categorical rule being sought by two growers challenging the decades-old California regulation. The companies say the Constitution’s so-called takings clause requires compensation when a regulation gives a third party the right to use private property.

Both sides in the case “have line-drawing problems,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett told the lawyer for the growers. “What if California had a regulation that permitted union organizers to go onto the property of your clients, one hour a day, one day a year?”

Conservative legal groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are opposing the access regulation, and trying to leverage a court that in recent years has bolstered the rights of landowners and curbed the clout of unions. It is the first case on those topics for Barrett, whose confirmation in October gave the court an even stronger conservative majority.

The case was filed by two businesses that have tangled with union organizers: Cedar Point Nursery, which grows strawberry plants in the northern California town of Dorris, and Fowler Packing Co., a Fresno grower of grapes and other fruits.

They say the regulation strips agricultural companies of their right to control who comes onto their property and forces them to allow disruptive protests. Their lawyer, Joshua Thompson, told Barrett that even her hypothetical one-hour requirement should be considered a constitutional violation.

Inspection Laws

Justice Stephen Breyer said Thompson’s position raised questions about dozens of government inspection laws.

“There are all those long lists of statutes,” he said. “Are they all unconstitutional?”

The regulation implements California’s Agriculture Labor Relations Act, a 1975 law that gave farm workers in that state the type of collective bargaining rights other laborers already had under federal law.

California Solicitor General Michael Mongan said the high court has been loath to categorically declare particular types of regulations to be takings that require compensation. He urged the court to use the case-by-case approach it has traditionally applied to restrictions on how people can use their own property.

Mongan drew push-back from across the court’s ideological spectrum. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Mongan’s proposed test “fails to capture the significant interest in the right to exclude at stake in physical invasion cases.”

And Barrett asked whether a categorical rule would be calamitous as opponents say it would be.

“Why would it be that big of a deal for California to say to the unions, ‘Listen to compensate for the taking, if you want access, you pay 50 bucks’?” she asked. “Let’s say that the court says that that’s a fair amount for compensation. What’s wrong with that?”

The case, which the court will decide by June, is Cedar Point v. Hassid, 20-107.

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