Anti-corporate farming challenge

Daryl Lies, center, president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, is leading his organization in pursuing a federal lawsuit against the state over its anti-corporate farming law. Flanking Lies are Wes Klein, left, District 7 director, and Pete Hanebutt, director of public policy for the bureau.

BISMARCK – Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem says a lawsuit brought by the North Dakota Farm Bureau seeking to overturn the state’s anti-corporate farming law is so vague that the state can’t properly respond to it, but a lawyer for the plaintiffs says the complaint is specific.

The lawsuit filed June 2 in U.S. District Court in Bismarck claims the law passed by North Dakota voters in 1932 is unconstitutional and hurts farmers by limiting their ability to attract investment and secure financing and lowering the value of their farms.

Stenehjem, in a motion and memo filed Wednesday, asked the court to order the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint specifying which parts of the law violate the U.S. Constitution.

He argued that the anti-corporate farming law takes up nearly 20 pages of the North Dakota Century Code and the complaint “makes only general and obscure references about the source of the unconstitutionality.”

“The Complaint is currently so vague or ambiguous that the State is unable to adequately prepare and frame a proper responsive pleading,” the motion stated, later adding that the state “should not be relegated to speculation or outright guesswork.”

Fargo attorney Sarah Andrews Herman, who is representing the plaintiffs, said she was “somewhat surprised” by the motion, noting she had received a call from an assistant attorney general and referred him to similar complaints that successfully challenged anti-corporate farming laws in South Dakota and Nebraska.

“I don’t think there is any validity to that,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of information there and we’re not trying to be mysterious at all, and I think they know what we’re talking about.”

North Dakota is one of nine states that prohibit or limit corporate farming and is the only state with no exemption for livestock. The law contains an exemption for family corporations and limited liability companies with up to 15 related shareholders.

State lawmakers passed a bill last year that would have partially lifted the ban to allow for non-family corporate ownership of dairy and swine operations. But opponents led by the North Dakota Farmers Union gathered enough signatures to force a referendum, and residents voted down the exemptions on June 14.

Stenehjem noted that state and federal courts have consistently upheld North Dakota’s anti-corporate farming law, but similar laws in other states haven’t always survived challenges.

South Dakota voters approved a corporate farming ban in 1998, but a group of feedlot owners, ranchers and landowners challenged the ban in federal court and won. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in 2003, finding that the ban violated constitutional protections against undue burdens on interstate commerce.

The other plaintiffs in the North Dakota lawsuit are Thompson-based Galegher Farms Inc.; Wisconsin-based Breeze Dairy Group LLC, which is made up of five unrelated families who want to expand to North Dakota; and Wisconsin dairy farmer Brian Gerrits, one of the company’s founders. The suit claims the ban discriminates against citizens of other states and interferes with interstate commerce.

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