Monday, June 6, 2016

How To Tax A Tomato

Many of my books deal with (let's call them) nuances of the American legal system, to which I was first introduced as a kid decades ago, trailing my father, grandfather, and uncle to various courtrooms, mostly in Baltimore City.

When I began law school, one of the first cases we were assigned to read was Marbury v. Madison, a cornerstone of constitutional law. However, a case that might better prepare first year law students and non-lawyers to deal with the U.S. legal system is one that I just read, three decades after being assigned Marbury.

Nix, et al. v. Hadden, also a U.S. Supreme Court case, was decided in 1893, and as recently as 2015 was cited in Supreme Court decisions as solid precedent.

A tariff case, Nix holds that tomatoes are vegetables. This may not seem especially important, except for the very scientific fact that tomatoes are actually a fruit, due to the botanic classification that they are "that part of a plaint which contains the seeds of the plant, especially the juicy, pulpy product of the plant, which covers and contains the seed."

So how did the Nix case so flatly deny science? By making vegetables a tax matter.

At the time the case was decided, the U.S. imposed a tariff on imported vegetables, but not on imported fruit. Alas, as it was in the best interests of governmental revenue that tomatoes be a vegetable, the Supreme Court deftly performed legal gymnastics and ruled that vegetables shouldn't be defined by botany, but by when we consume them.

Vegetables, the court found, are eaten as a part of a meal, while fruits are eaten for desert.

Perhaps if there had been hipster ice creameries serving sun-dried tomato gelato in the late 1800's, tomatoes could have better argued their scientific standing as a fruit. Alas, that was not the case, and science was hustled out of the courtroom for what would not be the last time.


Preston Pairo's latest novel, One Dead Judge, a saga from Ocean City, is available exclusively at

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