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Supreme Court Weighs In On Raisins, Spider-Man And Hotel Registries

We're still awaiting U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the two big blockbuster cases that have drawn attention this term: same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act. But the court did issue a number of decisions Monday in some lesser-known but interesting and important cases.

Here's a rundown:

California Raisins: In this case, California farmers Marvin and Laura Horne sued over a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that lets the government set aside a portion of farmers' annual crop to reduce supply and raise prices.

The Hornes said they were losing money under the New Deal-era program, because the government was not paying enough to cover the costs they incurred growing the raisins. They refused to set aside any of their crop under the program and were fined $680,000.

The court, by a vote of 8-1, sided with the farmers. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Fifth Amendment "requires that the Government pay just compensation when it takes personal property, just as when it takes real property."

Roberts rebuffed the government argument that the raisin growers voluntarily chose to participate in the raisin market, and that if they object, they can plant different crops or "sell their raisin variety grapes as table grapes or for use in juice or wine."

Roberts said, " 'Let them sell wine' is probably not much more comforting to raisin growers than similar retorts have been to others throughout history."

Spider-Man: Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment is a patent case, but it really doesn't have anything to do with superhero characters. Rather, it's about whether a patent holder can continue to collect royalties after a patent expires. In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled against Stephen Kimble, who invented a popular toy that shoots foam string from a Spider-Man glove. When the case was argued back in April, SCOTUSblog wrote:

"The parties settled protracted litigation with a royalty agreement in which Marvel agreed to pay three percent of product sales in return for Kimble's patent. That provision apparently runs afoul of the Supreme Court's oft-criticized 1964 decision in Brulotte v. Thys Co., holding that a patent-holder cannot collect royalties after the patent expires. After the Ninth Circuit reluctantly agreed that Brulotte invalidated the agreement, the Court granted review for the express purpose of considering whether it should overrule Brulotte."

Justice Elena Kagan had some fun with the majority opinion, which upheld the lower court's ruling. She wrote, "Patents endow their holders with certain superpowers but only for a limited time." What's more, she said, "Respecting stare decisis means sticking to some wrong decisions."

Hotel Registries: In a 5-4 ruling, the justices struck down a Los Angeles city ordinance that allowed police to inspect hotel registers on demand. The city had argued the ordinance was necessary to fight drug sales and prostitution, and said people would be less likely to use hotels for such purposes if they knew the hotel had to turn over registration information at a moment's notice.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the court, said the ordinance is "unconstitutional because it penalizes [hotel operators] for declining to turn over their records without affording them an opportunity for pre-compliance review."

Sotomayor was joined by Justices Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy.

Writing in dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the law was "eminently reasonable."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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