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Lochner v. New York

Further Readings

In Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, 25 S. Ct. 539, 49 L. Ed. 937 (1905), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law restricting the hours employees could work in the baking industry, as a violation of the freedom of contract guaranteed by the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. This seemingly minor decision spawned a new era in constitutional interpretation.

CONSTITUTIONAL LAW is often divided into three eras, the center of which is Lochner. In the pre-Lochner era (1789–1870), courts interpreted the Due Process Clause of the FIFTH AMENDMENT to have primarily a procedural content that protected persons against ARBITRARY governmental deprivations of life, liberty, and property. This procedural right meant that individuals were entitled to sufficient notice and a fair hearing before the government could take harmful action against them. Courts reviewed only the manner in which a particular law infringed on a substantive right, without evaluating the importance of the right or the severity of the infringement.

During the Lochner era (1870–1937), courts interpreted the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to have a substantive content that protected from governmental intrusion certain economic and property interests, such as the right of employers and employees to determine the terms and conditions of their employment relationship. (Though Lochner was decided in 1905, prior cases going back to 1870 contributed to Lochner and are included in the Lochner era.)

The post-Lochner era (1937–present) is marked by decreased constitutional protection for economic and property rights and increased recognition of "fundamental" constitutional rights that protect minorities from discrimination, safeguard the interests of criminal defendants, and delineate a sphere of private conduct upon which the state may not encroach.

The Lochner era was an outgrowth of the U.S. industrial revolution. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the output of manufactured goods tripled, and the value of those goods soared from $3 billion to over $13 billion. The national labor force kept pace during this period, growing from 13 million to 19 million workers. Along with the growth of industry came a large disparity in the wealth and working conditions of U.S. citizens. Although some business proprietors were working fewer hours and making more money, many of their employees were working more hours in unhealthy conditions for scant wages. The bakers of New York were one group of such workers.

New York bakers at this time reportedly worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, in a confined and uncomfortable environment. This lifestyle left little time for rest, causing some bakers to live in their kitchen and sleep at their workbench. A number of bakers died at an early age, and others contracted debilitating diseases. In 1895 the New York state legislature unanimously passed the Bakeshop Act, which attempted to address these problems by limiting the working hours of bakers to ten a day and 60 a week.

In 1902 Joseph Lochner, who owned a small bakery in Utica, was fined $50 for permitting an employee to work more than 60 hours in a week. During the trial Lochner offered no defense and was convicted. On appeal he challenged the constitutionality of the Bakeshop Act, claiming that it interfered with his right to pursue a lawful trade. The state defended the statute by arguing that it represented a legitimate exercise of its POLICE POWERS, pursuant to which the legislature may enact laws to preserve and promote the health, safety, and morality of society.

Lochner's claim did not lack precedent. In 1897 the Supreme Court nullified a Louisiana statute that attempted to regulate contracts between state residents and out-of-state insurance companies (Allgeyer v. Louisiana, 165 U.S. 578, 17 S. Ct. 427, 41 L. Ed. 832 [1897]). Holding that that statute impaired the liberty of contract guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court said that the Louisiana resident had a right "to live and work where he will," "to earn a livelihood by any lawful calling," and to "enter into all contracts which may be proper, necessary, and essential to … carrying out … the purposes above mentioned."

In addition to this precedent, the general mood of the country also favored Lochner's claim. Despite the universal support for the Bakeshop Act in the New York Legislature, a large number of U.S. citizens were still committed to the idea that in a capitalistic market, a government that governs least governs best (an idea that reflects laissez-faire economics).

In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld Lochner's due process claim, striking down the Bakeshop Act as an interference with the right of employers and employees "to make contracts regarding labor upon such terms as they may think best, or upon which they may agree." Writing for the majority, Justice RUFUS W. PECKHAM said that despite statistics indicating that the baking industry was not as healthy as some other trades, the common understanding of the Court suggested otherwise. "The trade of a baker," Peckham wrote, "is not … unhealthy … to such a degree which would authorize the legislature … to cripple the ability of the laborer to support himself and his family."

The Court acknowledged that state governments possess police powers to protect the health and safety of their residents. However, the Court said, a statute must have a direct relation to a material danger that would compromise the public health or the health of employees before it may restrict the hours of labor in any trade or profession. In this case, the Court concluded, the connection between the Bakeshop Act and the health and welfare of New York bakers was too remote.

Two dissenting opinions were written in Lochner, one by Justice OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES JR., and the other by Justice JOHN M. HARLAN. Both dissents attacked the majority opinion as judicial activism and extolled the virtues of judicial self-restraint.

Harlan conceded that the Due Process Clause contains a substantive content that protects the liberty of contract. But this liberty, Harlan emphasized, may be circumscribed by state regulations that are calculated to promote the GENERAL WELFARE. Such regulations, Harlan argued, must be sustained by state and federal courts unless they clearly exceed legislative power, bear no substantial relation to societal welfare, or invade rights secured by fundamental law. Harlan concluded that doubts as to the validity of a statute must be resolved in favor of upholding its validity. Applying this standard, Harlan found the Bakeshop Act valid.

Holmes's dissent is considered a classic exposition of judicial self-restraint. As part of the U.S. system of democracy, Holmes stated, a majority of adults residing in any state have the "right to embody their opinions in law," even if those opinions are tyrannical or injudicious. It is the judiciary's role in this system to interpret and apply the laws passed by the coordinate branches of government.

Notwithstanding the Court's decision in Lochner, state legislatures were apparently free to maintain a paternalistic role when enacting similar laws that applied only to women. Three years after Lochner, the Court upheld the constitutionality of an Oregon statute that restricted women from working more than ten hours per day in a mechanical establishment, factory, or laundry. Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412, 28 S. Ct. 324, 52 L. Ed. 551 (1908). Although the statute was very similar to the New York statute, except that it applied to women, the Court clearly based its decision upon its perception that women were inferior to men. According to the majority opinion written by Justice DAVID BREWER, "That woman's physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious … history discloses the fact that woman has always been dependent upon man." Because the Court found that the statute was designed for what it considered the necessary protection of women in the workplace, the Court upheld the statute as constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. In doing so, the Court specifically left the ruling in Lochner intact.

Lochner remained the controlling precedent for nearly 30 years; it was overruled finally in WEST COAST HOTEL CO. V. PARRISH, 300 U.S. 378, 57 S. Ct. 578, 81 L. Ed. 703 (1937). Parrish examined the validity of a Washington state statute that established a MINIMUM WAGE for women. A hotel owner challenged the constitutionality of the statute on the grounds that it violated his liberty of contract guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The hotel owner relied on Lochner and a series of subsequent cases that nullified various state regulations as inconsistent with the substantive rights protected by the Due Process Clause. One of these cases, Adkins v. Children's Hospital, 261 U.S. 525, 43 S. Ct. 394, 67 L. Ed. 785 (1923), invalidated a similar minimum wage law in the District of Columbia. But the Supreme Court was no longer persuaded by the rationale underlying Lochner and ruled that the Washington statute was a reasonable exercise of the state's police powers.

In the 32 years between Lochner and Parrish, the United States was confronted by a STOCK MARKET crash in 1929, which precipitated the Great Depression of the 1930s. President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT attempted to combat some of the more serious problems of the depression by initiating a host of federal laws known collectively as the NEW DEAL. These events made many U.S. citizens more sympathetic to governmental largesse.

The Supreme Court was also affected by these events. Where Lochner had underscored free-market laissez-faire principles, Parrish highlighted the unequal bargaining power of employers and employees, as well as the oppression and exploitation of female workers. Freedom of contract, the Supreme Court said in Parrish, is not an absolute and uncontrollable liberty.

Any lingering doubts as to the validity of Lochner were eliminated by the Supreme Court in United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 58 S. Ct. 778, 82 L. Ed. 1234 (1938), which held that courts must sustain state and federal laws that regulate economic interests, unless there is no rational basis to support them. By contrast the Court said that legislation that "appears on its face to be within a specific prohibition of the Constitution … restricts … political processes … [or is] prejudic[ial] against discrete and insular minorities" will be subject to stricter scrutiny.

The Carolene Products case ushered in the post-Lochner era. During this era the Supreme Court has offered little constitutional protection for contract and other property rights. At the same time, the Court has offered increasing protection against legislation that touches upon a fundamental constitutional right or denies a governmental benefit to a suspect class of persons, what the Court in Carolene Products called "discrete and insular minorities."

Fundamental rights include most of the rights enumerated in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, as well as the right to privacy, the right to travel, the right to vote, and the right to education. Suspect classes include groups of persons who are discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, national origin, or other "immutable" genetic characteristics (FRONTIERO V. RICHARDSON, 411 U.S. 677, 93 S. Ct. 1764, 36 L. Ed. 2d 583 [1973]).

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