We like to think of the Supreme Court as being serious business. After all, it is the highest court of the land; once they decide something, the only thing that can overrule them is the Court itself. Some of their rulings are legendary: Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down segregation once and for all, Bush v. Gore, which decided the Presidential election of 2000, and Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, all come to mind. So, I’m sure it comes as a shock to you that, on occasion, the Supreme Court behaves more like a Kangaroo Court. Don’t believe me? Get a load of these cases:
1. Nix v. Heddon
In 1893, the Exalted United States Supreme Court heard arguments about the question people have been asking themselves since the beginning of time: “Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?”
You see, the Tariff Act of 1883 placed high import duties on vegetables but not on fruit. So, some enterprising vegetable importers thought they’d get cutesy with the law and file suit against the Customs Collector of New York, claiming that, from a botanical standpoint, a tomato is a fruit, and therefore can’t be charged a tariff.
Arguments included the reading of the definitions of both a fruit and a vegetable from three different dictionaries in open court, in fact, dictionary definitions were used heavily throughout deliberations, before botanists were brought in to declare that, yes, technically, a tomato is a fruit.
This was countered by customs agents claiming that the words “fruit” and “vegetable” had no special meaning in the imports business before the Tariff Act, and that while a botanist says a tomato is a fruit, the common man identifies it as a vegetable. The Court agreed, in a unanimous decision, that for legal purposes, a tomato shall be considered a vegetable, drawing the farce to a close.
2. Welch v. Swasey
In the first decade of the 1900s, skyscrapers were going up in cities all over America. In the residential district of the city of Boston, an ordinance prohibited the construction of buildings over 100 feet tall. This didn’t match with the ordinance in the commercial district, where the height maximum was 125 feet. Anyone who has ever lived in a city knows that these sort of insane double standards happen all the time.
Enter Francis C. Welch. He owned property in the residential section and wanted to build a 124 foot tall tower there. The city told him to bugger off. He responded by pitching a hissy fit and suing the city, claiming that the government was unfairly telling him what he could and couldn’t do with his property.
And so, in 1909, Welch v. Swasey was brought before the Supreme Court. Welch’s lawyers claimed that the ordinance was an inappropriate use of government power, done for the purpose of aesthetics. Clearly they weren’t aware that most of the uses of government power are similarly useless.
The court ruled in favor of Boston, the opinion basically stating that, while they agreed the statute was discriminatory and useless, they weren’t going to interfere in the business of a local jurisdiction where no real harm was being done. In other words, stop wasting our time before we disrobe in front of you.
3. Coates v. Cincinnati
In 1956, the city of Cincinnati passed an ordinance which made it illegal for three or more people to assemble on a city sidewalk unannounced and act in an annoying manner to passerby. What precisely was meant by “annoying” was not specified, but a fifty dollar fine or a night in jail was in order if you violated said ordinance. The law remained in place for 15 years, cheating who knows how many teenagers out of their allowance, until the cops started using it as an excuse to arrest student demonstrators.
A group of students involved in such a demonstration were convicted of violating the ordinance. However, rather than just pay the fifty buck fine, they choose to spend a great deal more money appealing to first the State Supreme Court of Ohio, then to the Granddaddy of Them All in DC.
They argued that the ordinance was unconstitutional because it didn’t specify what was considered annoying behavior and what wasn’t, and that it violated the First Amendment by restricting free speech. The Court agreed, and struck the ordinance down, proclaiming that since what one person considered annoying wouldn’t annoy someone else, there was no fair way to apply the law the way it was written. Presumably this was after they shook their heads and wondered why this crap made it all the way up the pipeline.
4. United States v. Ninety Five Barrels, More or Less, Alleged Apple Cider Vinegar
Right about now you are probably very confused, and looking at the title, it’s not hard to see why. It was the 1920s, a time in American history most known for Prohibition and organized crime. It was also a time of great ingenuity in the food market. Companies tried various means to get more money from their exploits, most of them shady. Until the Food and Drug purity laws were enacted, consumers had no protection from corporations stuffing cow testicles in a jar and calling them “pickled eggs.”
Misbranding of food products was thus a serious concern back then, but there is a point where a line of stupidity is crossed, and it happened in 1924, when the United States government took the Douglas Packing Company all the way to the highest law of the land over their process for making apple cider vinegar. Specifically, Douglas used dried apples rehydrated with water to make the vinegar, rather than using a fresh apple. The government said this meant that it wasn’t really apple cider vinegar.
Now, the reason for the goofy ass name is that in a case where the plaintiffs are claiming a foodstuff is not genuine, they are taking the foodstuff to court and not the company that made it, despite the company’s lawyers arguing the case, etc. So, the United States wasn’t suing Douglas Packing, they were suing the “alleged” apple cider vinegar. More specifically, 95 barrels of it. What is intriguing is that they didn’t even bother to get an accurate count of just how many barrels they were claiming were misbranded, meaning in a court of law, where exactitude and specifics are stressed more than anything, the docket read “Ninety Five Barrels, More or Less.”
In the end, the Court did rule in favor of the United States, stating that in the eyes of the law, the hooch had been misbranded, despite it tasting “almost the same” after Chief Justice and noted Food Connoisseur William Howard Taft sampled both “genuine” apple cider vinegar and the Douglas product.
5. Rowan v. US Post Office Dept.
Everyone gets crap they don’t want in the mail: credit card offers, donation requests, bills, literature from the Church of Latter Day Saints, and yes, advertising flyers. Most people just throw ads they don’t want away, since they don’t even have the addressee’s name on them. Your right to not receive mail from advertisers you explicitly don’t want sent to you is upheld by a Federal statute passed many years ago. But in 1970, a mail order business sued, claiming the statute unconstitutional. Their argument?
That it restricted free speech by prohibiting the distribution of crap that the addressee doesn’t want them to send to their house.
If you go to a person’s house and they don’t want you there, they can ask you to leave, and if you don’t, you can be arrested for trespassing. Why is it they thought mail is any different? What made it worse was that at the time, the statute only allowed for the blocking of advertising material that the addressee “believes to be erotically arousing or sexually provocative,” which of course would lead you to believe this Rowan fellow was ticked off because some guy didn’t want him sending flyers for the latest two for one sale at the Dildo Factory or half off on Foot Fetish mags.
The Court ruled that the addressee has the discretionary right to refuse advertisements sent to them from any retailer, not just the naughty ones, meaning that the only reason Sears and Wal-Mart can’t bombard you with sales flyers if you don’t want them to is because Rowan the Dildo King was shot down in court.
By Ben Adelman