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Bunting v. Oregon

Proper Exercise Of Police Power

In 1910 the state of Oregon enacted a statute that limited the number of hours a laborer could work in specific occupations. The statute provided a maximum of ten hours per day of work service in manufacturing plants, mills, and factories. A laborer could work an additional maximum of three hours of overtime per day provided he was paid a rate of time-and-a-half of his regular wages. The violation of this statute was a misdemeanor charge carrying a $50 fine.

Franklin O. Bunting was cited with a violation of the Oregon labor statute. He had an employee working in Lake View Flouring Mill who was working a 13-hour day and who was not compensated for the three hours overtime at the time-and-a-half rate. Bunting pleaded "not guilty" and the case went to trial. The district court found Bunting guilty. Because of the constitutional question, the case was remanded to the state supreme court where the lower court's ruling was affirmed.

Bunting claimed that the Oregon law violated both the U.S. Constitution and the Oregon State Constitution. He believed that he was denied due process of the law as guaranteed by the Constitution because the law was not a regulation of work hours, but, rather, a regulation of wages. Bunting claimed that the law forced employers to pay employees for a 13-hour-day at a rate that was higher than the fair market value of the services provided. This, he concluded, took profits property from the employer and gave it to the employees.

The U.S. Supreme Court first heard the case on 18 April 1916. It was reargued on 19 January 1917 with a decision delivered the following April. The Court was required to answer two questions in deciding the case. First, was the Oregon State labor law a wage law or was it hours of service law? They, then, had to address whether the law itself violated the Constitution of the United States and the Oregon State Constitution. Did the legislation provide an excessive amount of police power to the state in enacting and enforcing laws that benefited the governmental majority and caused harm to the citizens of Oregon?

Justice McKenna entered the opinion for the Court. In reviewing the state statute and Bunting's claim, the Court affirmed that the labor law placed limits only on the number of hours a laborer could work in order to protect his health. They concurred that the Due Process Clause permitted states to enact maximum-hour laws for workers in specific occupations that were deemed physically demanding or performed under special conditions. The opinion of the Court supported the Oregon State Supreme Court's decision that the purpose of the law was to limit hours in particular industries. Justice McKenna wrote that the labor law made no attempt to fix the minimum or maximum standard of wage. There is no wage specified in the law. Wages were left to the determination of the negotiating parties: employer and employee. The rate of time-and-a-half of the regular wage was deemed a mild penalty for causing the laborer to work beyond the ten hour limit.

The overriding issue in Bunting v. Oregon was whether the enactment of the Oregon maximum hour labor law exceeded the appropriate exercise of police power by the state. In previous cases the Supreme Court held that a state had the authority to enforce legislation that protected workers from conditions that were physically demanding and which were concerned with the health and physical well-being of the worker. In Mugler v. Kansas (1887) the Supreme Court stated that police power of the state was "no more than the power to promote public health, morals, and safety." It was the opinion of the concurring justices that the Oregon labor law did not prevent an employer from negotiating the best wage standards possible for the benefit of his business, but that it did protect the laborer's health and general welfare.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Bunting v. Oregon - Significance, Proper Exercise Of Police Power, Impact, Related Cases