Town’s Lawn-Mowing Requirement Held Not Equivalent to Slavery

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The excellent Legal Blog Watch reports that the Georgia Supreme Court has rejected an argument that an ordinance requiring citizens to mow their lawns constituted an imposition of "involuntary servitude" of the kind prohibited by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution and (more reluctantly at first) by the Georgia state constitution. 

Translation: making somebody mow their lawn is not equivalent to slavery.

Linda Gasses was fined $150 for violating Ordinance 17-207, Art. II, Sec. 42-33, which prohibits allowing grass or weeds to reach a height of six inches or more (or to be otherwise "unkempt," whatever that might mean). Rather than pay, the Gasses the Gasseses the Gasses family Ms. Gasses Linda chose to fight. She lost (again) in the state's highest court on October 4, 2010. Gasses v. City of Riverdale, 701 S.E.2d 157 (Ga. 2010).

No Excuse for Lazy Children, Either Linda argued, among other things, that the ordinance violated due process and equal protection because it forced elderly homeowners to work and treated owners differently from non-owners. But the court held the ordinance did not target the elderly (a protected class), and so the "rational relationship" test applied. If you are the challenger, that normally means you lose, and this was no exception. The court held that regulating overgrown vegetation was at least a "rational" purpose and was a valid use of the city's "police power."

Nor was the mowing requirement "akin to involuntary servitude." The scope of the 13th Amendment was interpreted in U.S. v. Kozminski, where the Supreme Court defined "involuntary servitude" as requiring "the use or threatened use of physical or legal coercion" to force someone to work. 487 U.S. 931 (1988). The fact that, in Kozminski, the court reversed (for further proceedings) the convictions of people charged with coercing mentally disabled men to work in slave-like conditions did not bode too well for somebody claiming she shouldn't have to mow her lawn. And indeed, the Georgia court held that government may require certain civic duties (military service, jury duty, lawn-mowing) without running afoul of the 13th Amendment.

Also, it turns out this argument has been tried before.

In Rowe v. City of Elyria, an Ohio man also complained about having to mow the grass, also invoked the 13th Amendment, and also lost.  38 Fed. Appx. 277 (6th Cir. 2002).  Bonus points: that plaintiff had demanded $2 million in compensatory damages for the alleged weed-related civil-rights violations.

None of these decisions suggest that anybody has researched whether the debate over the post-Civil-War amendments included their potential effect on our nation's lawns, so that may be something to consider for the next such case.