WASHINGTON » The Supreme Court agreed today to hear a dispute between a soybean farmer and Monsanto Co. over the company’s efforts to limit farmers’ use of its patented, genetically engineered Roundup Ready seeds.
The justices said they will hear an appeal from Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman, who is trying to fend off Monsanto’s lawsuit claiming Bowman made unauthorized use of the seeds.
Monsanto’s patented soybean seeds have been genetically engineered to resist its Roundup brand herbicide. When Roundup is sprayed on a field, the product will kill the weeds without harming the crop.
The Obama administration urged the court not to take the case and warned that the outcome could affect patents involving DNA molecules, nanotechnologies and other self-replicating technologies.
Monsanto has a policy that prohibits farmers from saving or reusing the seeds once the crop is grown, ensuring that farmers have to buy new seeds every year.
Bowman used the patented seeds, but also bought cheaper soybeans from a grain elevator and used those to plant a second crop. Most of the new soybeans also were resistant to weed killers, as they initially came from herbicide-resistant seeds, too. Bowman repeated the practice over eight years. Monsanto sued when it learned what he was doing.
The company has filed lawsuits around the country to enforce its policy against saving the seeds for the future.
Bowman’s appeal was among seven new cases the court added today to its calendar for argument during the winter.
The justices also will consider whether a government’s refusal to issue a development permit can amount to “taking” private property for which the owner must be paid.
The high court will review a Florida Supreme Court decision that sided with a local water management agency in a dispute with a property owner who sought permits to develop land classified as environmentally sensitive. Negotiations over the permits failed when the owner would not agree to conditions that included reducing the size of his project and paying for work on nearby government-owned land.
In earlier cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has required governments to pay for imposing conditions on development. The Pacific Legal Foundation, a property rights public interest law firm, is representing property owner Coy Koontz Jr.
In a case from Virginia, the court will consider overruling a 10-year-old decision affirming judges’ discretion to lengthen a prison sentence beyond the mandatory minimum term set by law. At the time of the 2002 decision, several justices said it was at odds with the logic of a line of cases in which the court limited judges’ ability to raise sentences above a maximum term, unless juries specifically identified the facts to justify the longer sentence.
The court also will use a Virginia case to decide whether states can keep out-of-staters from using their Freedom of Information Act laws to get government documents. Federal appeals courts are divided on the issue.