(April 1, 4:11 p.m.) Almost 12 years after it was first filed, a lawsuit challenging the California Table Grape Commission’s ability to levy assessments on First Amendment grounds has been settled in favor of the commission.

The March 31 ruling by California federal court Judge Oliver Wanger asserts the Fresno-based commission is immune from constitutional challenge by virtue of its being created by the state legislature, and that mandatory funding for a range of programs, including generic advertising, is part of the group’s mission.

“I think this is a very strong decision that will help provide some final level of clarity in the constitutionality of mandated programs,” said commission president Kathleen Nave.

The suit was filed in 1996 by Delano Farms Co., Delano, Calif. It was among the first of several lawsuits that have challenged a number of marketing programs that assess grower-shippers based on the volume they ship.

Three years after the commission filed a motion to dismiss the case, the court rejected the suit and ordered assessments that had been held in escrow to be returned to the commission. Delano Farms appealed to the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent the case back to the lower court for trial. The two sides argued the case in January 2007.

“There are more than 500 table grape operations in this state and the vast majority of those grower-shippers are not part of this very long running litigation,” Nave said.

The cost of attorneys’ fees to fight the lawsuit was high, Nave said, but the total has not been calculated.

“Litigation is the exact opposite of a positive thing,” Nave said. “It’s a huge drain on resources. But the work the commission does, in my perspective, is of such value to the industry that that’s what keeps us on the staff motivated.”

In his 194-page ruling, Judge Wanger ruled against the plantiffs’ allegation that the commission’s advertising program violated free speech rights. Wanger ruled it is a part of the organization’s efforts to increase demand for California table grapes. He found a number of programs including research, market access, issue management and education are part of the Commission’s broad efforts.

A ruling for Delano Farms could have led to the eventual dissolution of the Table Grape Commission. It was the staff’s belief that the commission’s work is important to the industry that kept morale high during the years of litigation, Nave said.

“The fact that we have the support of the vast majority of the industry and the very active support of many grower-shippers made it easier to put the negativity of litigation in the proper context,” she said. “I think an organization like this that works on behalf of the industry as a whole can make a significant positive benefit for that industry. That’s what keeps us hard at work day in and day out.”