(May 8) Finding that Florida’s “citrus equalization tax” discriminated against imported juice, the 10th Judicial Circuit Court in Florida in April gave the Florida Citrus Commission until July to propose a remedy in the case, according to a report from the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service.

The court had ruled on March 15 that the equalization tax was unconstitutional because it illegally discriminated against foreign citrus products imported into Florida while it exempted imported juice products from other states, mostly California.

Richard Kinney, executive vice president of Florida Citrus Packers Inc., Lakeland, said the equalization tax issue does not involve fresh fruit imports. However, he said all growers are concerned about the possibility of paying out millions from their assessments in claims to processors.

Kristin Gunter of the Lakeland law firm of Macfarlane, Ferguson & McMullen, represented the five international citrus processors who sued the state and the Citrus Department over the tax, according to a report in Lakeland, Fla.’s newspaper, The Ledger.

Based on the ruling, the court was asked to order the Florida Department of Citrus to refund nearly $10 million in equalization taxes to its clients, the amount that the plaintiffs in the case have paid since filing the lawsuits in late 2000 and early 2001, plus three years in back taxes (the period of time limited by Florida tax laws). Importers of frozen concentrated orange juice have paid the tax since 1970, The Ledger reported.

Under a 1990 Supreme Court decision, the 10th District Court must give the Florida Citrus Commission the first opportunity to propose a remedy. The court gave the Citrus Commission until July to come up with a remedy.

The Florida Citrus Commission is expected to meet May 14 and is likely to discuss their options, said Kevin Bouffard of The Ledger.

Florida’s legislature passed the equalization tax at the urging of Florida citrus growers, who felt that imports should pay their share of promotion expenses. Florida growers pay a tax on each box of citrus harvested in the state. Bouffard said the tax ranges from 16 cents per field box of processed oranges to 30 cents per field box of fresh grapefruit.

Gunter said that the 10th Judicial Circuit Court in Florida in April separated the commerce clause of the lawsuit from the first amendment issue. That first amendment lawsuit will be heard in the early fall, she said.

The first amendment aspect of the case argues that the Florida Citrus Commission’s advertising campaign promoting “100% Florida” orange juice is objectionable speech. Gunter said that no importers have a seat on the Florida Citrus Commission and have no voice in devising advertising campaigns.