Nix v. Hedden: Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?

Case: Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893)

A tomato

Issue: Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable for purposes of assessment under the Tariff Act of 1883?

Statutory Language:
The Tariff Act of 1883 imposes a duty on “vegetables in their natural state, or in salt or brine, not specially enumerated or provided for in this act, ten per centum ad valorem.” The Act exempts from duty “[f]ruits, greens, ripe, or dried, not specifically enumerated or provided for in this act.”


As children, we all engage in the “intellectual” debate of whether we ought to classify tomatoes as fruits or vegetables. From the outset, we view tomatoes as vegetables because (1) they are not sweet like fruits and (2) we use them like other vegetables. However, at some point, we all learn that the botanical sciences classify tomatoes as fruits. We leverage this new-found knowledge in this definitional dispute, generally unaware that the Supreme Court resolved it (at least from a legal perspective) in 1893.

Nix v. Hedden is the classic example of “ordinary usage” in statutory interpretation. Writing for the Court, Justice Gray observes that neither “fruit” nor “vegetable” has acquired any special meaning in commerce. Therefore, these terms “must receive their ordinary meaning.” Justice Gray concedes that, “[b]otanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas.” Yet he nevertheless concludes that ordinary usage suggests that tomatoes are vegetables. Tomatoes “are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.” In sum, tomatoes are used as vegetables and, therefore, should be classified as such in the case of statutory ambiguity.

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