Today in 1893: The Supreme Court rules that tomatoes are vegetables, not fruits

May 10, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryThe Supreme Court has the final say on the laws of the land.

As the ultimate arbiter on interpreting federal laws – including the U.S. Constitution – the Court has a significant amount of power to determine the course that the rest of the country will follow.

It does this by answering momentous questions that often bitterly divide the populace:

Are former slaves citizens?

Is racial segregation constitutional?

Is there a right to abortion?

Is Obamacare unconstitutional?

 Are corporations “people”?

Is a tomato a fruit or vegetable?

You may have noticed that one of those questions seems a bit out of place.  No, I’m not referring to the “Obamacare” one; I’m talking about the “tomato” question.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court did, indeed, answer that question in 1893’s Nix v. Hedden, decided 120 years ago today.

You are probably wondering what led to the Court’s deciding such a question.  The law at issue in Nix is the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883, which imposed a tax on imported vegetables of 10% ad valorem (of its value).  This tax didn’t apply to fruits.

The importers, John Nix, John W. Nix, George W. Nix, and Frank W. Nix, brought suit against the port collector to recover the duties paid for their imported tomatoes, arguing that since tomatoes are, botanically speaking, a fruit, the tariff didn’t apply.

At trial, both parties read the definitions of “fruit,” “vegetable,” “tomato,” and several other fruits and vegetables from Webster’s, Worcester’s, and the Imperial Dictionaries.  One witness also testified that the terms “fruit” and “vegetable” hadn’t acquired any special meaning in trade or commerce distinct from those definitions read from the dictionaries.

The trial court granted the port collector’s motion for a directed verdict, and the Nixes appealed.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.  However, the Court didn’t look at the dictionary definitions read at trial since, according to the Court, “dictionaries are admitted, not as evidence, but only as aids to the memory and understanding of the court.”

Thus, the Court only looked at the “ordinary meaning” – that is, “the common language of the people” – since the evidence at trial established that the words “fruit” and “vegetable” have not “acquired any special meaning in trade or commerce.”

Although the Court conceded that, “[b]otanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine,” it further held that the common conception of the produce is as a vegetable.

The Court made the same distinction with “cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas” (none of which are vegetables, botanically speaking).

In explaining its decision, the Court stated that the tomato is a vegetable since it is served as part of the main course of a meal, “and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

If you can believe it, the Court actually had directly relevant precedent to rely on in making this decision: Robertson v. Salomon, decided four years earlier.

Salomon, like Nix, dealt with the definition of “vegetable” under the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883.  Instead of deducing the identity of the tomato, Salomon resolved the question of whether white beans were “seeds” (and exempt from taxation under the tariff) or “vegetables.”

Although the bean is botanically a seed, the Court reached the same conclusion as it later did in Nix: that the common conception of beans is as a vegetable, since they are most often produced as food, not as seeds to be planted.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court ruled in either case, a tomato is still a fruit and a bean is still a seed.

But as a testament to the great power wielded by the high court, even when the Court is unequivocally wrong in a decision, it’s still correct.

And this maxim isn’t any less true today than it was 120 years ago.