Press Release

Final pre-trial hearing set for Friday in feds’ suit against farmer for plowing

SACRAMENTO, CA;  June 14, 2017: The final pre-trial hearing is set for Friday, June 16, in the controversial federal prosecution of a California farmer because he plowed his own property, to grow wheat, without asking permission from wetlands regulators.

The federal lawsuit against John Duarte, president of Modesto-based, family-owned Duarte Nursery, has received nationwide attention, because of the crippling fines that he faces — fully $2.8 million — and because of the sweeping implications for American agriculture. Prosecutors and bureaucrats are seeking to establish, for the first time, that farmers with seasonal puddles need a federal wetlands permit in order to plow their own private land — even though plowing is exempt from Clean Water Act (CWA) coverage.

Duarte and his attorneys with Pacific Legal Foundation — along with farming advocates across the country — have asked the Trump Administration to abandon the unprecedented prosecution, which was commenced during the Obama Administration. And the chairs of the House Agriculture and Judiciary Committees have sent a joint letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions raising questions about the litigation.

Friday’s hearing is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. at the federal courthouse in downtown Sacramento, before U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller. It will address, among other things, the date for the trial in Duarte’s case. Trial is tentatively set for August 14, but Duarte’s PLF attorneys seek a trial date in the spring of 2018, to allow the judge an opportunity to view Duarte’s wheat farm in Tehama County at the same time of year as the expert witnesses have inspected it. A trial date next spring would also allow time for an important case currently pending in the Ninth Circuit, which could affect the outcome of the Duarte case, to be decided.

Feds are pushing an ‘absurd claim’ in trying to fine John Duarte $2.8 million

“With prosecutors calling for staggering fines, threatening the future of the Duarte business and its hundreds of employees, all based on the absurd claim that Duarte’s plowing turned the property into small mountain ranges, it is essential for the judge to see the property at the same time of year as the government’s squad of experts did, to get an accurate understanding of the case,” said PLF Senior Attorney Tony Francois. “A viewing of the property at that time of year will show that the plowing did no environmental harm, and that a significant amount of the plow furrows, which the government contends to be ‘small mountain ranges,’ are in fact entirely gone as the result of time, wind, rain, and grazing.”

Ignoring the CWA’s long-standing exemption for plowing, bureaucrats and prosecutors in the Duarte case contend that a government OK is needed if plowing moves soil from side to side and into furrows. This is what they claim Duarte did when the company’s plowing created four-inch-high pinstripes of soil. Regulators are classifying these tiny ridges as “mini uplands” — mandating the need for a federal permit.

A test case by overzealous bureaucrats that threatens all farmers

“John Duarte is the target of a test case with implications that should alarm every farmer in America, and every family that values having food on their table,” said Francois. “If the farming exception to the Clean Water Act is going to be plowed under — forcing farmers to seek costly and time-consuming federal permits in order to work their own land — we may not have a lot of domestically grown food to eat. We hope that the Trump Administration takes a hard look at this exercise in prosecutorial and bureaucratic abuse, and assesses it for what it is: an ill-conceived holdover from the last administration. But until that happens, we will litigate aggressively, on behalf of John Duarte’s rights, and the rights of all farmers to be free from oppressive and unlawful federal micromanagement and bullying as they grow the food that feeds our nation and the world.”

Tony Francois and John Duarte will be available to comment on the case, outside the courthouse, before the hearing on Friday morning.

What: Final pre-trial conference in Corps of Engineers’ lawsuit against John Duarte
Where: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California
501 I St., Sacramento, CA. Courtroom 3
Judge Kimberly J. Mueller
When: Friday, June 16, 2017; 10:00 a.m. docket
Who: PLF Senior Attorney Tony Francois will represent John Duarte

About Pacific Legal Foundation
Pacific Legal Foundation, America’s most powerful ally for justice, litigates in courts nationwide for limited government, property rights, individual liberty, and a balanced approach to environmental regulations. PLF represents all clients free of charge.

Case Attorneys

Anthony L. Francois

Senior Attorney

Tony Francois is an attorney in PLF’s Sacramento office, and has litigated cases around the country defending Americans’ property rights from land use and environmental restrictions. He is a member … ›

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Damien M. Schiff

Senior Attorney

Currently a Senior Attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, Damien joined PLF in 2005.  His practice has focused on federal and state environmental and land-use issues.  Damien was counsel of record … ›

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Jeffrey W. McCoy


Jeff McCoy is an attorney at PLF’s office in Sacramento, where he works on cases involving environmental regulations and private property rights. Prior to joining PLF, Jeff was a staff … ›

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