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228 clicks; posted to Food » on 01 Oct 2022 at 2:25 AM (9 weeks ago) | | share:
Are Tomatoes Fruits or Vegetables? | Nix v. Hedden
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In episode 5 of Supreme Court Briefs, Mr. Beat looks at that one time the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether tomatoes were fruits or vegetables. No joke. For the record, Mr. Beat hates tomatoes.
John Nix was one of the most successful sellers of produce in the city. His company was among the first to ship fruits and vegetables from warmer climates like Bermuda and Florida to New York. However, he became upset after hearing about a new law passed by Congress.
The law, called the Tariff of 1883 (Congress has never been that good at naming laws by the way), required a tax to be paid on imported vegetables. As it turns out, that meant that Nix's tomatoes that he imported would be taxed, even though he and his buddies all thought a tomato was clearly a fruit, not a vegetable. Fruits were exempt from the law. Four years later, Nix and his family finally decided to take action in federal court. They sued Edward Hedden, the Collector of the Port of New York, to get back the money they had been paying on tomatoes.
Now, just so we are clear, tomatoes are fruits. In my opinion, horrible, disgusting...fruits, but nonetheless they are fruits. However, most people didn't know that, and the definition was different in terms of trade and commerce. At the trial, Nix and his lawyers read the dictionary definitions of both "fruit" and "vegetable," and witnesses even testified about their definitions.
On May 14, 1889, the federal judge went with Heddon, arguing that the public tends to think that tomatoes are a vegetable, so therefore it should be considered a vegetable under the Tariff Act of 1883. John Nix and his family appealed, and the Supreme Court heard the case in April 1893.
The lawyers on both sides made pretty good use of dictionaries. The defense team responded to the tomato definitions with definitions of the words pea, eggplant, cucumber, squash, and pepper. In response to that, Nix's team read in evidence the definitions of potato, turnip, parsnip, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot, and bean. So basically the lawyers went back and forth reading definitions for awhile. It became an all-out dictionary war.
Just like the federal judge, the Court ruled unanimously in favor of Heddon. It argued that tomatoes must be classified under the customs regulations as a vegetable, based on how they are used and popularly perceived. Justice Horace Gray didn't deny that, scientifically speaking, a tomato was a fruit. However, he argued that when words have acquired no special meaning in trade or commerce, the ordinary meaning must be applied by the court. Therefore, he claimed dictionaries can't be used as evidence, but merely as aids to help add context to the case. Yeah, take that, you stupid dictionaries!
Nix v. Hedden set a precedent for court interpretation of common meanings, especially dictionary definitions. It also kind reinforced the false belief that tomatoes are vegetables. But the truth is overrated, right? In 2005, the New Jersey state legislature designated the tomato as the official state vegetable. Their justification? Nix v. Hedden.