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Adair v. United States

The Right To Fire Is Absolute

Oral arguments in Adair were presented in October of 1907, and the Court issued its decision on 27 January 1908. Writing for the majority, Justice Harlan reversed Adair's conviction. Justices McKenna and Holmes issued separate dissents. Justice Moody, recently appointed and a former attorney general, disqualified himself.

Harlan's decision declared that the relevant section of the Erdman Act was unconstitutional. The law took away defendant Adair's liberty and property and thus was contrary to the Fifth Amendment. Throughout his decision, it should be noted, Harlan personalized the argument by focusing on Adair and not the railroad which employed him. Harlan did this deliberately to avoid having to consider whether a corporation is a "person" protected by the Due Process Clause.

Harlan directly related Adair to the 1905 Lochner decision. As in the earlier case, the Erdman law interfered with freedom of contract. An employer had the right to fire for any reason, just as an employee had the right to quit for any reason (which is the legal right justifying strikes). The law gives equal protection to the employer's liberty to fire and the employee's liberty to quit. The Fifth Amendment protects these rights against actions by the federal government. The Fourteenth Amendment protects them against state governments.

Harlan did not turn liberty of contract into an absolute right. Under the Commerce Clause, Congress has broad authority to regulate and restrain contracts.

Congress has a large discretion in the selection or choice of the means to be employed in the regulation of interstate commerce, and such discretion is not to be interfered with except where that which is done is in plain violation of the Constitution.

There is, however, simply no connection between membership in labor unions and the carrying on of interstate commerce. Labor unions seek to improve their members' conditions. This is "an object entirely legitimate and to be commended rather than condemned." However, a person:

. . . will faithfully perform his duty, whether he be a member or not a member of a labor organization . . . It is the employee as a man and not as a member of a labor organization who labors in the service of an interstate carrier.

Harlan's opinion in Adair united and spoke for the Court. For the next 30 years, the justices used the legal doctrines of liberty of contract and substantive due process to overturn a variety of regulatory laws. The Court did not fully and finally abandon these doctrines until the 1930s in response to the Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Adair v. United States - Significance, New Laws To Protect Workers' Rights, The Right To Fire Is Absolute