(For additional details, please see “Bland Farms begins packing Vidalia onions”)
Both sides are claiming victory in the latest chapter of the legal saga of one Vidalia onion grower’s fight against the Georgia agriculture commissioner’s new, later start date for shipping the trademarked onions.
Tattnall County Superior Court Judge D. Jay Stewart dismissed a case April 15 that the owner of Bland Farms had filed a week earlier. Delbert Bland, who has about 3,000 of the 12,600 certified Vidalia onion acres, wanted Judge Stewart to block Commissioner Gary Black from enforcing his new rule that bars shipment of the onions until April 21 this year.
The dismissal is exactly what Bland and his attorney, former Georgia attorney general Michael Bowers, wanted.
“We’re going to start shipping tomorrow,” Bland said April 15. “This is the only time you’re going to hear that a plaintiff is happy that his case was dismissed.”
Bowers said Judge Stewart’s ruling clarifies a March ruling from a Georgia judge in another county who said the new rule is invalid. Bland initially challenged the new start rule in September 2013 with a case in Fulton County superior court in Atlanta.
“The main thing is this provides a judge’s clarification of what the first judge said,” Bowers said. “The judge today did not give us what we asked for because he said we already had it.”
What Bland and his attorney have, they said, is an injunction barring the commissioner from enforcing the new Vidalia onion start date rule. Judge Cynthia Wright ruled on March 19 in Fulton County Superior Court that the commissioner’s rule is invalid and granted Bland’s requests, which included the injunction, Bowers said.
However, the commissioner and Georgia’s Attorney General’s office contend that their notice of appeal of Judge Wright’s ruling put everything on hold, which they say means the new rule is in effect. The new rule sets the Monday of the last full week of April every year as the start date.
Black’s office applauded Judge Stewart’s ruling in a statement after Judge Stewart’s ruling April 15.
“We believe Judge Stewart correctly dismissed the case,” according to the statement from Black’s office. “With the help of the Attorney General’s office, we look forward to continuing the discussions regarding the Vidalia onion pack date in appellate court.”
Judge Stewart’s six-page ruling states that he did not have jurisdiction to hear the case, partly because the matter was already pending before the Georgia Court of Appeals. However, Judge Stewart’s ruling states twice that Judge Wright’s ruling included approval of an injunction barring the commissioner from enforcing his new rule.
“The plaintiff sought, and obtained, an order in (Judge Wright’s court) declaring that the new packing rule is ‘void and unenforceable’ as well as an injunction barring (Commissioner Black) from taking any enforcement action against (Bland) for violations of this packing rule,” Judge Stewart wrote in his ruling.
Bland said he will not ship vidalia onions before they are mature, but that he plants earlier than many growers and his onions are therefore mature earlier. He has said that Mother Nature dictates when to harvest and ship, not a state official.