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Lochner v. New York

A Surprise Verdict

By a 5-4 vote the Supreme Court preferred elevated liberty of contract over the rights of employees to a safe workplace and reasonable hours. Speaking for the Court, Justice Rufus Peckham said:

There is no reasonable ground for interfering with the liberty of person or right of free contract, by determining the hours of labor, in the occupation of a baker . . . A law like the one before us involves neither the safety, the morals, nor the welfare of the public . . .

Justice Harlan, six-feet-two-inches tall--who, according to his wife, "walked as if the whole world belonged to him"--joined White and Day in dissenting. Harlan quoted professors and writers who felt baking was a hard occupation, and pointed out that Congress and nearly all the states had passed laws concerning "particular occupations involving the physical strength and safety of workmen . . . Many, if not most, of those enactments fix eight hours as the proper basis of a day's labor." He was referring to hazardous jobs, such as mining.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, on the Court less than two years, also dissented in a separate opinion that people quoted for years to come. He put his finger on the unspoken assumption of the majority:

The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which has been a shibboleth for some well-known writers, is interfered with by school laws, by the Post Office, by every state or municipal institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable, whether he likes it or not.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Lochner v. New York - Significance, A Baker's Lawyer, Due Process And Daniel Webster, A Surprise Verdict