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Good news for farmers battling federal agencies

The 10th Amendment of the United States Constitution sets forth: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

The 10th Amendment doesn't get a lot of attention in Supreme Court jurisprudence. Rarely is it the focus of Supreme Court litigation. However, in a recent case involving the legality of sports betting in New Jersey, the SCOTUS issued an opinion that is probably good news for those who believe strongly in federalism and states' rights. And the case could have real implications for farmers and agriculturalists who have watched in recent years as the federal government has gotten larger and more powerful in scope, size and cost.

So what happened? In a nutshell, in 1992 the federal government passed legislation that generally banned states from making sports betting legal. Twenty years later, New Jersey passed a state law legalizing sports betting in New Jersey. The NCAA sued, alleging federal bans on sports gambling were being violated. A federal appeals court ruled that New Jersey couldn't pass a law legalizing what the federal government says is illegal. The United States Supreme Court didn't hear a further appeal, so the New Jersey law was declared void, since it was in conflict with the federal law.

In the federal appeals court decision in that case, it noted for the State of New Jersey that, while New Jersey was prohibited from passing a law that directly conflicted with the federal law barring sports betting, the federal appeals court also stated that there was nothing in the federal law that required the states to keep any present gambling ban in place.

So New Jersey, two years later, passed a law that eliminated the New Jersey state law prohibiting sports gambling. This was litigated, and finally appealed to the Supreme Court.

The SCOTUS decision last week was a 6-3 vote, with the majority decision penned by Justice Samuel Alito. In that decision, he educated readers of the opinion with regard to the "anticommandeering doctrine", stating that the doctrine "may sound arcane," but adding that it is merely "the decision to withhold from Congress the power to issue orders directly to the States." He analyzed the federal and state statutory conflict and determined that the federal law "unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do." He posited that it was almost like "federal officers were installed in state legislative chambers and were armed with the authority to stop legislators from voting on any offending proposals." Alito penned in his opinion, "A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine." Strong words.

So why is a sports gambling decision being written about in an Agweek column? Well, it's because this decision is just another sign that maybe the tide is turning with regard to the previously unchecked increase in size, scope and cost of the federal government. Farmers who have been dealing with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on issues pertaining to wetlands will see this decision as a hopeful one. So will farmers who have had other legal issues with federal regulatory agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, or others.

There are legal commentators who believe this case will impact cases involving legalization of marijuana, pointing out that several states have passed laws legalizing marijuana, in direct conflict with the federal laws making marijuana illegal. There is even speculation that the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) litigation could be affected by the recent gambling ruling.

Finally, there are several administrative law concepts that could now be in play. For example, the Chevron deference doctrine, which states that courts will defer to an administrative agency's reasonable interpretation of its own rules, could be subject to change. This would be good news for farmers who are presently battling federal agencies like the EPA or USDA.

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