Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bread Fraud? In 1915 Cheating Omaha Bakers Hauled to Court!

The shocking Omaha Bee headline on February 28, 1915: 

The price of flour inflated. Loaves of bread shrank.

One hundred years ago Omaha families noticed they were getting smaller loaves of bread than they had been promised. Bakers and grocers where hauled into court to face the consequences of their stinginess.

Mirroring today’s battles overs government regulation, consumer protection, and balancing price with serving size, the great Omaha bread wars made front page of The Omaha Bee in 1915.
Omaha Bee, February 28, 1915

At the time the size of a loaf of bread was regulated by city ordinance to assure people were getting what they paid for. According to an article in The Bee “The present bread ordinance was passed
 nearly twenty years ago (that would be around 1895) and provides 
that a loaf of bread shall weigh sixteen 
ounces and that a double loaf shall weigh
 thirty-two ounces, no mention being made
 as to price.”

The professional bakers in town didn’t like being told what size bread they could sell and proposed the city council get rid of the law.

The bakers, however, were not making any allies by ignoring the ordinance and selling lighter loaves. It seems as the price of flour went up, the bakers wanted to keep the price of a loaf steady at five cents for sixteen ounces of bread.

Customers, according to The Bee, complained to city hall.  “In response to complaints made by
 citizens at the office of the city sealer of 
weights and measures, that official has 
started to get busy.”

John Grant Pegg, Omaha’s “sealer of weights and measures, the stalwart protector of the consumer, led the investigation. Some loaves baked by the Jay Burns Baking Company under the "Holsum" brand were up to three ounces short of the promised weight. Charges were filed against both bakers and the grocers. (Pegg explained to the newspaper charges against the grocers were necessary so “he can get evidence against the man who baked the bread.”)

1913 Holsum Bread Ad
The city prosecutor, much to Pegg’s distress, was not a zealous and dawdled on advancing the bread fraud cases to district court. The indignant weights and measures man told the reporter from The Bee “he does not feel warranted in
making other arrests on the existing
bread ordinance as long as these cases
are pending.”

The paper discovered apparent collusion among the bakers.

“A south side grocer said he was given to understand that within the last two weeks the master bakers met and decided to reduce the weight of loaves two ounces on the sixteen ounce loaves rather than raise the price from 5 to 6 cents,” noted the article in the Bee. The common term today would be “price fixing.”

Omaha no longer regulates bread.

Friday, January 16, 2015

KEYSTONE BACK TO COURT: Nebraska landowners file new lawsuits to block pipeline

Landowners in two Nebraska counties opposed to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline have filed lawsuits challenging the right of the project’s developer, TransCanada from taking their land using eminent domain. 

Holt County Nebraska
This is a new a separate action taken in the courts in the wake of the Nebraska Supreme Court’s review of state law which left unanswered the question of whether the state had improperly given the authority to choose the pipelines route to then Governor Dave Heineman.

The lawsuits, filed in Hold and York Counties, cover much of the same ground covered in the case of Thompsen V. Heineman dismissed last week. The landowners claim LB1161, the law passed by the Nebraska State Legislature is in conflict with the state’s Constitution.  As a result the lawsuits claim “TransCanada is without eminent domain authority or an approved pipeline route across Nebraska because … the Governor’s actions are TransCanada’s sole basis for claiming an approved route or power of eminent domain.” 

In both the Holt and York County cases a total of seven landowners filed the lawsuits. They claim, in nearly identically related briefs, their property is along the pipeline route. Four of the seven have already received written notice from TransCanada that they intend to proceed with condemnation proceedings against their land to advance the pipeline project.

In the matching legal briefs the landowners who have been served notice state they have declined and refused to “declines and refuses to voluntarily convey ownership rights” to TransCanada.

York County Nebraska
No date has been set yet for follow up hearings in either county.
President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have yet to state whether the United States government will object to the Canadian-based project from crossing the northern border.

BOLD Nebraska, leading the state’s opposition to the project announced the filing on its website late Friday, adding “it is only the President who can provide peace of mind to farmers and ranchers along the route. Our fight will continue even if the President rejects the pipeline.”

Representatives of TransCanada and the State of Nebraska were not available for comment at this writing.

Monday, January 12, 2015


Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline may be upset with three Nebraska Supreme Court judges after a frustrating defeat. In fact, the blame rests with William Jennings Bryan. Pipeline supporters owe him their everlasting gratitude.

William Jennings Bryan (Library of Congress)
How on earth could responsibility lie with the long-dead giant of Nebraska politics? How did the legendary orator stack the deck against Randy Thompson and BOLD Nebraska?
Though a majority of the Supreme Court argued the pipeline siting law was unconstitutional, this state requires one more vote, a “super-majority” of five out of the seven judges to declare laws unconstitutional.
In Thompson V. Heineman four out seven agreed giving the Governor powers assigned to the elected Public Service Commission was an unconstitutional act of the Legislature. Because the three remaining judges refused to vote on the main question, the majority did not prevail. (CLICK HERE to read more about the decision from NET News.)
It’s a rare occurrence. And only one other state in the nation has such a provision. Why?
The landmine which exploded under pipeline opponents last week was planted by Bryan 100 years ago. He suggested the state put a check on the court’s power. He didn’t think judges could be trusted.
This fact was brought to my attention by Jim Hewitt, a great resource for legal history and the author of “Slipping Backward: A History of the Nebraska Supreme Court.”
Bryan marched onto the national political stage following his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic Party national convention in Chicago. In addition to supporting currency based on silver as well as gold, he railed against a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision blocking establishment of federal income taxes. The passionate speech electrified delegates who demanded he become the Democrat’s candidate for President. He ultimately lost but the events cemented Bryan’s passion for limiting the power of judges.
Thirteen years later Bryan got an opportunity for revenge against the courts on a smaller stage. In 1919, at the peak of his political popularity in Nebraska, Bryan delivered another passionate speech, this time to the convention charged with revising the young state’s constitution.
Bryan urged delegates consider an amendment cutting into the authority of the Nebraska Supreme Court.
He argued the existing system “empowered the state supreme court to invalidate legislative acts by a mere majority,” according to Paul Madgett in his 1969 article for the Creighton Law Review.
Bryan proposed requiring the support of five of seven justices declare unconstitutional laws created by the legislature or citizen initiatives (what’s now called the super-majority). The proposal was based on Bryan’s “belief that a single judge should not have the power to override the will of the people as expressed by their legislative representatives” according to Madgett.
“While one can only speculate about the impact of Bryan's address upon the convention,” Madgett wrote, “it seems more than coincidental that after his address a proposal implementing his suggestion was introduced, approved by the committee, and adopted by the convention.”
This was considered a very liberal point of view at the time. A majority of delegates agreed with Bryan, in part to head off an even more radical proposal from farmer-members of the Socialist-influenced organization known as The Nonpartisan League seeking to strip all power from the court system to invalidate bills passed by the elected state representatives. (It’s notable that North Dakota, the founding home of the League, is the only other state with a super-majority provision controlling its high court.)
A sample ballot from the Dakota Co. Herald, 1920.
In a special election a few months later Nebraskans were handed a ballot listing 41 proposed amendments to the Nebraska State Constitution. A third of the way down the list, Ballot Question No. 16 asked for a yes or no on whether Section 2a of Article VI should be amended to require “concurrence of five judges of the Supreme Court to declare laws unconstitutional.”
According to press accounts of the elections, all the amendments passed with “decisive majorities” (including giving Nebraska women the full right to vote). That’s not to say there was much passion about reforming the courts or any of the other items. One newspaper reported “the vote was extraordinarily low throughout the state, running from one-fourth to one third of normal.”
Fast forward 100 years. The Nebraska Supreme Court issues its ruling in which a majority of the court, but not enough of the court, felt the state’s law on siting a hugely controversial pipeline violated the state’s constitution.
Because three of the judges refused to vote on that part of the opinion the law stays.
William Jennings Bryan, with his initiative designed to protect the little guy from the conservative forces dominating the high court, scuttled the lawsuit blocking the construction of the oil pipeline that may some day cross Nebraska.
Sources for this post include:
Madgett, Paul W., Five Judge Rule in Nebraska by, Creighton Law Review, Volume 2, 1969. (Online.
Sheldon, Addison E. “The Nebraska Constitutional Convention, 1919-1920.” The American Political Science Review, 1921. (Online:
Earle, Herbert. The Nonpartisan League. Gaston, Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920 (via
Hewitt, James W. Slipping Backward: A History of the Nebraska Supreme Court. University of Nebraska Press, 2007. (Print)
The reporting of the North Platte Tribune, the Red Cloud Chief, and the Alliance Herald, accessed via the Library of Congress “Historic American Newspapers” archive.