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Hammer v. Dagenhart

commerce court labor child

At the beginning of the twentieth century, U.S. reformers sought to end the practice of child labor. Young children were sent into factories and mines to work long hours for low wages. Aside from the physical demands placed upon children, labor robbed them of a chance to obtain an education. Some states enacted laws to regulate child labor, but others ignored these efforts and found competitive advantages in having a cheap supply of labor. Congress finally responded in 1916, when it passed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, of September 1, 1916, c. 432, 39 Stat. 675. The statute prohibited the use of interstate commerce for goods and materials made with child labor. Congress believed that the Constitution's COMMERCE CLAUSE permitted it to act to regulate child labor, but the U.S. Supreme Court thought differently. In Hammer v. Dagenhart, 247 U.S. 251, 38 S. Ct. 529, 62 L. Ed. 1101 (1918), the Court ruled the act unconstitutional, basing its decision on a constricted interpretation of the Commerce Clause and an expansive view of state governments' powers. The decision provoked Justice OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES to write one of the most significant dissenting opinions in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Roland H. Dagenhart filed a lawsuit in North Carolina on behalf of his sons Reuben and John, challenging the Keating-Owen Act. Under the provisions of the law, his two sons would have been barred from working in a cotton mill, as one son was under 14-years old and the older son was under 16-years of age. Dagen-hart asked the U.S. District Court to strike down the law as unconstitutional as a violation of the Commerce Clause and the TENTH AMENDMENT. The relevant part of the law prohibited the shipment of goods in interstate or foreign commerce if "within thirty days prior to the time of removal of such product" children had been employed or permitted to help make them. The law applied to children under the age of 16 who worked in mines; to children under the age of 14 who worked in mills, canneries, workshops, factories or manufacturing establishments; and to children between 14 and 16 years of age who worked more than eight hours per day, more than six days in any week, or after 7 P.M. or before 6 A.M. These provisions effectively barred the Dagenhart sons from working and thereby deprived the family of needed income. The district court agreed with Dagenhart and held the act unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld the district court's ruling. Justice WILLIAM DAY, in his majority opinion, agreed that the Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to regulate commerce among the states and with foreign countries. However, the power to regulate did not mean that Congress had the power to prohibit certain commerce. Day acknowledged that prior Court rulings had upheld federal laws that banned the movement of certain goods in interstate commerce but these decisions rested "upon the character of the particular subjects" at issue. In Champion v. Ames, 188 U. S. 321, 23 Sup. Ct. 321, 47 L. Ed. 492 (1903), the Court had upheld a law that banned the movement of lottery tickets in interstate commerce. In Hipolite Egg Co. v. United States, 220 U. S. 45, 31 Sup. Ct. 364, 55 L. Ed. 364 (1911) the Court sustained the constitutionality of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which prohibited the shipping of impure foods and drugs in interstate commerce. The Court had also upheld the MANN ACT in Hoke v. United States, 227 U. S. 308, 33 Sup. Ct. 281, 57 L. Ed. 523 (1913). This law prohibited the movement of women in interstate commerce for the purposes of prostitution. Finally, the Court had sustained a federal law that regulated the shipment of intoxicating liquors in interstate commerce. Justice Day noted that in this decision, Clark Distilling Co. v. Western Maryland Railway Co., 242 U. S. 311, 37 Sup. Ct. 180, 61 L. Ed. 326 (1917), the Court had agreed that Congress could prohibit the shipment of liquor but only because of the "exceptional nature of the subject here regulated."

Advocates of the child LABOR LAW believed that all of these decisions supported the right of Congress to ban the products of child labor in interstate commerce, but Justice Day concluded otherwise. The key to the prior rulings was that interstate commerce was needed to accomplish the "harmful results." With the child labor law, the goods in question were harmless. The effect of the act was to regulate child labor rather than to regulate transportation in interstate commerce. In the Court's view, this was an impermissible effect because of its definition of "commerce." The manufacture of goods and the mining of coal were not commerce, only the transportation of such things were.

Justice Day was troubled by the expansive reading of the Commerce Clause by Congress. If the Court had upheld this law, "all manufacture intended for interstate shipment would be brought under federal control." He concluded that the framers of the Constitution would never have envisioned such a broad grant of authority, for it undercut the power of the states to regulate commerce within their borders. In addition, the Tenth Amendment reserved powers to the states' governments, which included regulations "relating to the internal trade and affairs of the States." Thus, the Court's reading of the Commerce Clause and the Tenth Amendment combined to defeat the constitutionality of the child labor law. It was up to the states to regulate child labor; Day noted that North Carolina had acted on the issue by prohibiting children younger than 12 years of age from working. A contrary interpretation would have had catastrophic consequences to the federal system of powers. Day concluded that "our system of government [would] be practically destroyed" if Congress could use the Commerce Clause to effect changes in work conditions within the states.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in a dissenting opinion joined by three other justices, could barely contain his CONTEMPT for the majority's interpretation. He faulted the Court for imposing personal values "upon questions of policy and morals." In a famous statement, Holmes declared: "I should have thought that if we were to introduce our own moral conceptions where, in my opinion, they do not belong, this was preeminently a case for upholding the exercise of all its powers by the United States."Holmes rejected the idea that Congress could not prohibit the movement of goods in interstate commerce, whether the products were judged harmful in themselves or the result of a harmful practice. He stated that "Regulation means the prohibition of something," and then referred to prior rulings where the Court had upheld federal laws that had prohibited actions contrary to the wishes of Congress. In his view, Congress had sufficient authority to regulate child labor. The states were free to regulate their internal affairs, but once goods crossed state lines, the Commerce Clause gave Congress the authority to regulate these shipments.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed Dagenhart in United States v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100, 312 U.S. 657, 61 S. Ct. 451 (1941). In its ruling, the Court acknowledged the "powerful and now classic dissent of Mr. Justice Holmes."

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