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The U.S. Supreme Court, 70 years after rejecting Roscoe Filburn's bid to limit the federal government's power to regulate commerce. (Getty Images)

The Farmer And The Commerce Clause

Jul 5, 2012 (Morning Edition)

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Last week's Supreme Court ruling on the health care law might have made Roscoe Filburn a little happier.

Filburn was an Ohio dairy farmer who had a beef with the federal government, one he took to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1942. He lost.

The dispute was simple: The federal government said Filburn had grown too much wheat. In an effort to keep the price of wheat from falling — this was just after the Great Depression — the government limited how much wheat farmers could grow under a 1938 law, invoking its constitutional power to regulate interstate trade.

The government said Filburn could grow 11 acres. The farmer went out and planted twice that much.

Yes, he figured, he grew wheat. But he just fed it to his chickens. He didn't sell any of it across state lines. He didn't sell it at all. It never left his farm.

Jim Chen, dean of the University of Louisville School of Law, says you can understand Filburn's point of view. "I'm a chicken guy!" Chen says. "I'm a fourth- or fifth-generation farmer. You are bunch of pointy-headed economic idiots with economic charts and equations in Washington, D.C. And you know nothing about what it means to grow wheat. You can go to hell."

The feds tried to fine Filburn, and he fought all the way to the Supreme Court. It would turn out to be one of the most influential cases in history.

That's because the court ruled that the government could limit how much wheat Filburn, and other farmers, could grow. It could fine them for growing too much. Filburn may not have bought or sold any wheat, but he still affected the wheat market: Every extra bushel he grew was a bushel he didn't buy. In some small way, that moved the price of wheat.

And here's the parallel to the health care case: Roscoe Filburn didn't buy or sell wheat, yet the Commerce Clause still applied. What about people who didn't buy health insurance? Could it be applied there?

The Supreme Court last week said no, it didn't apply. Americans can be required to buy health insurance, just not under the Commerce Clause. Chief Justice Roberts argued that there's a difference between activity and inactivity. Filburn was actively growing wheat. But people not buying health insurance, aren't doing anything. (The court invoked the government's taxing authority to uphold the health-care requirement instead.)

Filburn died in 1987. His grandson, Gerald Spurgeon, said he didn't even know his grandfather had been part of a monumental Supreme Court case until after he died. "He never talked about it," Spurgeon says. "No, he wasn't talkative. ... He was a farmer."

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