Implications of Lochner v. New York


The Lochner Era, spanning almost three decades from 1905 to 1937, was one of the most distinctive periods of Supreme Court history. An analysis of the Court’s decision in Lochner v. New York (1905), the three decades emerging after the Lochner decision, and the events surrounding the Court’s eventual reversal of the decision in 1937 can reveal important implications for workers’ rights in our modern era.

For the purposes of this article, the following terms should be defined. The “right to contract” is central to the understanding of these cases; it is considered as the right between two parties to mutually engage in a contract of services. [1] Due process, within the context of the right to contract issue, refers to constitutional protections preventing the state from taking one’s property without providing due compensation. [2] The “police powers” of the state refer to the vested powers of local and state governments to make laws affecting many areas of people’s lives (not law enforcement per se, but matters related to public health and welfare as well). [3]

In 1905, under New York State’s Bakeshop Act, bakers were not allowed to work over sixty hours per week or greater than ten hours a day. [4] Joseph Lochner, the owner of a bakery, was found to have violated this law and was fined; Lochner subsequently took this matter to the Supreme Court, citing a right to contract protected within the Fourteenth Amendment. [5] The Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Lochner, concluding that the Bakeshop Act was unconstitutional. [6] Justice Rufus Peckham, writing the majority opinion, noted that the state’s “police powers” allow them to make laws that “relate to the safety, health, morals, and general welfare of the public.” [7] Peckham also writes that states can exercise this police power to “prevent the individual from making certain kinds of contracts.” [8] With regards to Joseph Lochner’s case, such contracts involve agreements between employers and employees involving the amount of hours worked and subsequent payments: according to Justice Peckham, such agreements could be regulated if the circumstance warranted the usage of the state’s police power. Nevertheless, the Court found that the Bakeshop Act clearly overstepped the state’s boundaries, as the public health would not be affected by the number of hours a baker worked. [9] The Court then noted how laws similar to Bakeshop Act could be unfairly applied to occupations such as doctors and lawyers, setting an extreme standard. [10] While bakers have a role that concerns the public health, the connection that the state makes regarding public health being tied to the number of hours that the state works is loose in this case. That being said, while acknowledging the police power of the state with matters related to the public health, the Court seemingly sets the right to contract above such police powers.

This is clear when analyzing the Lochner Era. David A. Strauss, a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, characterizes the period immediately after the Lochner case as an “era in which the Supreme Court invalidated nearly two hundred social welfare and regulatory measures”. [11] One clear and rather famous example of this is the 1923 Supreme Court case Adkins v. Children’s Hospital of D.C., where the Lochner precedent was applied to a Washington, D.C. minimum wage law. [12] This law was found by the Court to violate the right to contract embodied in the Constitution’s clauses on due process. [13] The Court regarded the minimum wage legislation specifically as violating this right by stamping payments upon workers without any regard to the many factors involved in employees’ work, including the contract itself. [14]

The Court continued to ruthlessly apply the doctrine at this time period. Indeed, Strauss supports this assertion: he regards the Lochner Era court treating the right to contract as “a cornerstone of the constitutional order” as well as the Court having “systematically undervalued reasons for limiting or overriding the right”. [15] A “right to contract” was blindly followed, without due consideration of what could possibly be the essential state services, such as providing for the public health and well-being, entailed within the state’s police powers. While one could argue that the Court did consider this in Lochner, the blind over-reliance upon the Lochner precedent throughout the following three decades undercuts this consideration.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court reversed the Lochner precedent in the 1937 case of West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, in which it promoted the state’s police power and compelled state interests over the right to contract. [16] This case centered around a Washington state minimum wage requirement for women in the workplace - very similar to the circumstances of the Adkins case. [17] Essentially, the Court noted that “freedom of contract” and other forms of completely unrestricted liberty do not explicitly exist within the Constitution, and therefore due process related to such freedoms are subject to limitations and restrictions. [18]

As noted before, the freedom of contract was held to almost no restrictions whatsoever in the Lochner Era cases, so the Court’s discovery of a “limitation of liberty” was a major departure from precedent. The Court referenced many of the cases preceding the Lochner Era, eventually noting that the state has a special interest in protecting the rights of women in the workforce. [19] For example, the court referenced the former 1908 Supreme Court case of Muller v. Oregon, citing how women (who were/are paid less than men) were inherently put at a disadvantage in the “struggle for subsistence,” which therefore necessitated the usage of the state’s police powers (which, in this case, involved a cap on the number of working hours for women). [20] Interestingly enough, in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, the Court also regarded the Adkins decision as “a departure from the principles” dealing with government regulation and employer-employee dynamics. [21]

It is clear that the Court made a wide departure from its previous decisions, overturning decades of precedent with the decision in West Coast Hotel. Nevertheless, wider implications should be considered with regards to the Court’s broad application of “freedom of contract”. Professor Strauss makes the assertion that “[a]nti-discrimination laws … would certainly be challenged as abridgements of freedom of contract today if Lochner survived”. [22] Indeed, this makes sense; had Lochner survived, corporations could claim a “right to contract” at any point, and the Court would have weighed that argument higher than the compelling state interest to get rid of discrimination. And such a ruling would almost clearly disregard the Equal Protection Rights under the Fourteenth Amendment in favor of an emphasis on the right to contract within “due process”. Essentially, had Lochner and its following cases (such as Adkins) not been overturned, much of the pivotal statutes and ordinances we see in our modern society dealing with equality would be dismissed. Thus, if the Lochner precedent had not been overturned in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, the Court’s rulings would have enabled a society with not only less working regulations, but also more inequality.

[1] Freedom of Contract Law and Legal Definition, US Legal, online at https://definitions.uslegal.com/f/freedom-of-contract/ (visited November 18, 2018).

[2] Due Process of Law, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, online at https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution-conan/amendment-14/section-1/due-process-of-law#fn58 (visited November 18, 2018).

[3] "Police Powers," Nolo, online at https://www.nolo.com/dictionary/police-powers-term.html (visited November 18, 2018)

[4] "Lochner v. New York," Oyez, online at https://www.oyez.org/cases/1900-1940/198us45 (visited November 9, 2018).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, p. 53 (1905).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, p. 57.

[10] Ibid, pp. 60-61

[11] David A. Strauss, Why Was Lochner Wrong?, University of Chicago Law Review: Vol. 70 Iss. 1 , Article 24, p. 373 (2003), online at https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclrev/vol70/iss1/24 (visited November 9, 2018)

[12] "Adkins v. Children’s Hospital of D.C.," Oyez, online at https://www.oyez.org/cases/1900-1940/261us525 (visited November 9, 2018).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, 261 U.S. 525, p. 558 (1923).

[15] David A. Strauss, Why Was Lochner Wrong?, University of Chicago Law Review: Vol. 70 Iss. 1 , Article 24, p. 375 (2003), online at https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclrev/vol70/iss1/24 (visited November 9, 2018)

[16] "West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish," Oyez, online at https://www.oyez.org/cases/1900-1940/300us379 (visited November 9, 2018).

[17] Ibid.

[18] West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379, p. 392 (1937).

[19] Ibid, p. 394.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, p. 397

[22] David A. Strauss, Why Was Lochner Wrong?, University of Chicago Law Review: Vol. 70 Iss. 1 , Article 24, p. 384 (2003), online at https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclrev/vol70/iss1/24 (visited November 10, 2018)

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