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SCOTUS Heard Arguments In Clash Between Large Agriculture Growers And Their Workers

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today in a high-stakes clash between large agricultural growers and the workers who harvest their crops. At issue - a California law that allows union organizers limited access to the growers' land when seeking support for the union. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The California law, the legacy of famed union organizer Cesar Chavez, allows union organizers access to the workers on site for an hour before and after work and during the lunch break. Access is permitted for up to 30 days, four times a year. The union argues that access is necessary to reach migrant workers who typically work at multiple sites over the course of that year. The growers contend that the law is a, quote, "invasion of their land that amounts to an unconstitutional taking of their property." They want the union either barred from their property or for the government to pay them just compensation. A similar claim was rejected by the courts in 1976, but the newly energized conservative Supreme Court majority is now taking a new look. And today, the justices struggled with how to approach the question. Addressing the growers' lawyer, Justice Barrett summed up the problem this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY CONEY BARRETT: I think that both sides have line-drawing problems, so let me ask you this. What if California had a regulation that permitted union organizers to go onto the property of your client one hour a day, one day a year? That is taking.

TOTENBERG: Yes, it is, replied lawyer Joshua Thompson. Well then, asked Barrett, why isn't the whole National Labor Relations Act unconstitutional? And why aren't laws unconstitutional that allow public officials access to private property to inspect everything from mine safety to meatpacking? - Justice Breyer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN BREYER: There are dozens and dozens and dozens of statutes. But are all those long lists of statutes - are they all unconstitutional?

TOTENBERG: Lawyer Thompson said those laws are different - Chief Justice Roberts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN ROBERTS: Why doesn't promoting peaceful labor relations fall under the same category as safety inspections?

TOTENBERG: The growers' lawyer argued that the landowners have a per se constitutional right to exclude anyone from their land but not government health and safety inspectors. That prompted Justice Sotomayor to ask what the principle is here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I guess you want us to make it up somehow.

TOTENBERG: The justices didn't seem any more satisfied with the answers from lawyer Michael Mongan, representing the California Agricultural Labor Board. What do you do, asked Chief Justice Roberts, if there are two unions that want access to the growers' property? Do they both get access for 120 days? Lawyer Mongan replied, that may be a theoretical possibility but not a realistic one. What's more, he noted, it's rare for the union to seek access for more than 30 days in any given year. Justice Thomas asked why the government couldn't mandate that the National Guard train on the growers' property three hours a day. Because, Mongan replied, that would be a pretty substantial interference with anyone's business. That's why, he said, each claim should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOTOMAYOR: Counsel, let me stop you there. Ad hoc won't satisfy many people.

TOTENBERG: Justice Sotomayor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOTOMAYOR: Articulate the rule to me.

TOTENBERG: The answer didn't seem to satisfy Justice Kagan either.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELENA KAGAN: What's the principle that would enable you to set a line someplace short of 365 days?

TOTENBERG: A decision in the case is expected by summer.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "SOCIAL INSECURITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.