Key Supreme Court ruling protects Californians’ private property rights


“I’m going to take this to the Supreme Court,” is almost always an empty, baseless threat generated by in-the-moment fury from someone who believes they were wronged. But sometimes cases get that far. Sometimes the offended party wins. And on occasion, that victory undergirds the framework of a free society.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid ruling in favor of property rights, which are inarguably foundational to liberty, is one of those cases.

On an October morning during the 2015 harvest, United Farm Workers organizers overran a private farm in Dorris, California. News coverage at the time described a chaotic scene in which some workers thought they had come upon the scene of a car wreck. According to the Court, “the organizers moved to the nursery’s trim shed, where hundreds of workers were preparing strawberry plants. Calling through bullhorns, the organizers disturbed operations, causing some workers to join the organizers in a protest and others to leave the worksite altogether.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented the nursery’s owners, said some employees were scared and intimidated by the union crowd, which arrived at 5 a.m. and “burst through the doors and made their way through the building.”

The owners complained the organizers had not been invited onto the property and were trespassing. And not for the first time. It happened before, in July 2015.

Two federal courts, however, didn’t care. Neither did California-born and Stanford-educated Justice Stephen Breyer, nor Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, the dissenters in the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling, which plainly said the state’s “access regulation grants labor organizations a right to invade the growers’ property,” and is therefore “a per se physical taking.”

Though the six Republican appointees on the Court voted together, that doesn’t necessarily make it a partisan, union-busting decision, as partisans are suggesting. University of Tennessee law professor and Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds says that while “the press coverage as usual puts” the ruling “in a left-right context, it is probably small businesses and farmers who will benefit most from this trend.”

“Small businesses in particular are more likely to be minority-owned or -run than big ones, and less well-equipped to use political influence to limit government intrusions.”

The ruling also carries an unmistakable message, one that tells “state regulators that it’s simply wrong to give outsiders access to farms, where families live and work hard to safeguard their animals and harvests,” says American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall.

The dispute could have been resolved sooner, had the California Agricultural Relations Board not issued a regulation that promotes trespassing in 1975.

Or if the federal court for the Eastern District of California had respected the owners’ property rights and not dismissed their request for relief.

Or the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had not upheld the lower court’s decision.

Or Sacramento had a better record of defending property rights.

But that is not the way things are done in California today. Protecting property rights is not a priority among progressive policymakers.

There are several glaring examples; many centered on housing.

Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego have gone beyond the point of merely dabbling in policies that would punish owners of vacant houses with tax levies unless they rent their homes to tenants.

Then there’s rent control. Portrayed as a solution to the state’s housing affordability troubles, it violates owners’ right to control their property. Though it has been soundly rejected by voters, it still exists in big California cities. Elected officials have declared housing as a right, never explaining how that right can be acted on without infringing on someone else’s rights, and at the same time refuse to overhaul the California Environmental Quality Act, which has become an effective tool for radical green groups as well as business rivals to control land use.

Of course there’s more: The unelected California Coastal Commission routinely prevents owners from utilizing their property as they wish, often requiring them to provide public access through their land to beaches; squatters have more “rights” than homeowners; and shoplifters steal others property with impunity. And in 2021, evicting tenants who are either unable or unwilling to pay their rent seems like an artifact from another era.

The hope here is that policymakers and regulators have been sufficiently chastised by the court. We’ll see if it shows up in their work product.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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