Sunday, October 08, 2006

Final Thoughts on Interpretive Challenges Created by Changes in the Structure of the Agricultural Industry

Arthur Capper  Handshake  Andrew Volstead

Senators Arthur Capper and Andrew Volstead

In an ideal world, Congress and state legislatures would amend statutes such as the Capper-Volstead Act, the agricultural exemption to the National Labor Relations Act, and others to keep up with changes in the agricultural industry. Congress and state legislatures would define terms such as “farming,” “agriculture,” and “agricultural production,” so that courts would not be left with the task of determining the meaning of these ambiguous terms.

Given that Congress has failed to amend several agricultural statutes to keep up with changes in the agricultural sector, courts will continually be faced with whether they should update these statutes. I believe that the answer will vary by context. The answer will depend on the statutory scheme at issue and whether a universally accepted public policy exists that suggests that a particular amendment to a statute is in order.

With both the zoning statute at issue in Farmegg and the federal antitrust statutes at issue in National Broiler, I would interpret the meaning of “agricultural production” narrowly. In both cases, a narrow interpretation of “agricultural production” is consistent with my understanding of the purposes of the statutes and the intentions of the statutes’ authors. In both cases, courts were asked to interpret agricultural exceptions to general rules, and exceptions are generally interpreted narrowly to avoid swallowing the overarching rules. Furthermore, while courts are commonly called upon to update laws (for example, to update common law causes of action), courts generally lack the competence necessary to resolve the complex issues raised by changes that have occurred in the agricultural sector.

Lastly, with regards to the zoning statute at issue in Farmegg, there is a third alternative besides having the legislature or judges update the zoning statute. County zoning boards can and regularly do update zoning ordinances. While county zoning boards are sometimes criticized for making biased or arbitrary decisions, they are more knowledgeable about zoning ordinances and agriculture and more democratic than courts. Courts should interpret agricultural exemptions to zoning statutes narrowly to give county zoning boards flexibility.