Mandatory Apple Dues Deemed Unconstitutional
The commission collects a mandatory 25 cents per 42-pound box of apples produced from nearly 4,000 growers statewide and spends the majority of the money on marketing the crop.
For the 2001-2002, the commission collected $35.5 million.
"It's a sad day for the Washington apple industry," said commission President Welcome Sauer on Monday.
"After 66 years of working in cooperation to build a market for everyone, we have a few people in the industry, and the court, bent on changing that structure."
The agency plans to appeal the decision, said Peter Spadoni, a Wenatchee attorney representing the commission.
The case will likely wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
The commission had argued that it's a state agency, and as such, has the power to collect the dues.
The judge disagreed.
In his decision, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Shea in Richland said such an action violates free speech.
"The Commission's principal purpose is speech, and its assessments are unconstitutional," Shea wrote.
In a controversial move in 2001, the commission initiated a class action lawsuit against itself in order to test the constitutionality of collecting mandatory fees.The move followed a series of nationwide challenges to other commissions, including mushroom, beef and pork groups.
Decisions have fallen both ways.
The U.S. Supreme Court found marketing fees for the Mushroom Council, which represents the industry nationally, unconstitutional.
But federal judges have found both the beef and pork commissions constitutional.
With the Washington Apple Commission case, the judge allowed three Yakima Valley warehouses and a handful of organic growers to opt out of the class action suit and hire their own attorneys.
The Yakima Valley firms are Washington Fruit & Produce Co., Borton & Sons and Evans Fruit Co. They are represented by Yakima attorney Brendan Monahan.
The companies are pleased with the court's decision but realize the matter isn't over, Monahan said.
"We, of course, understand the Apple Commission is committed to fighting it to the highest court in the land," he said.
What will happen next is uncertain, both sides say.
The judge has called for the parties to meet regarding issues still remaining. He has asked them to iron out such matters as whether refunds are due growers and how the commission will operate pending an appeal.
The federal judge also requested the two sides to file a report detailing how they plan to resolve the issues, or at least reveal their positions on them, within a week.
The commissioners will be meeting over the next couple of days to consider options, Sauer said. He declined to name any specifics.
"It's a tough day for us," he said. "But it's a tougher day for the industry."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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