Coppage v. Kansas

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Coppage v. Kansas
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Submitted October 30, 1914
Decided January 25, 1915
Full case name Coppage v. State of Kansas
Citations 236 U.S. 1 (more)
35 S. Ct. 240; 59 L. Ed. 441; 1915 U.S. LEXIS 1798
It is outside the scope of state police power to prohibit employment contracts that bar workers from joining a union.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Pitney
Dissent Holmes
Dissent Day, joined by Hughes

Coppage v. Kansas 236 U.S. 1 (1915), was a U.S. Supreme Court case that held that employers could make contracts that forbid employees from joining unions. These types of contracts were called yellow-dog contracts. This case was decided in the era prior to the American Great Depression when the Supreme Court invalidated laws that imposed restrictions on contracts, especially those of employment. During this time, liberty of contract was viewed as a fundamental right, and therefore, only in extreme circumstances, could this right be abridged. When the fundamental right of freedom of contract was abridged, it violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Coppage, an employer, forbade his employees from joining labor unions by making it part of their contract, which the employee signed before being hired. This "no joining unions" section violated a Kansas state law that prohibited these kinds of anti-union contracts.


The majority opinion, by Justice Pitney, held that the law prohibiting these contracts violated Coppage's due process rights. The Court held that it is not the government's job to ensure equal bargaining power.

[It] is said [...] to be a matter of common knowledge that 'employees, as a rule, are not financially able to be as independent in making contracts for the sale of their labor as are employers in making contracts of purchase thereof.' No doubt, wherever the right of private property exists, there must and will be inequalities of fortune. [Since] it is self-evident that [...] some persons must have more property than others, it is [...] impossible to uphold freedom of contract and the right of private property without at the same time recognizing as legitimate those inequalities of fortune that are the necessary result of the exercise of those rights.

He concluded that a state in the exercise of its police power did not have the right to redress imbalances of bargaining power and that requiring a man to give up the right to be in a union as a condition of employment "[does] not to ask him to give up any part of his constitutional freedom."

Justice Holmes's dissent called again for Lochner to be overruled, and stated that there is nothing in the Constitution that specifically prohibits a law like the one Kansas had, and therefore the law should be upheld.

I think the judgment should be affirmed. In present conditions, a workman not unnaturally may believe that only by belonging to a union can he secure a contract that shall be fair to him. Holden v. Hardy, 169 U. S. 366, 169 U. S. 397; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy R. Co. v. McGuire, 219 U. S. 549, 219 U. S. 570. If that belief, whether right or wrong, may be held by a reasonable man, it seems to me that it may be enforced by law in order to establish the equality of position between the parties in which liberty of contract begins. Whether in the long run it is wise for the workingmen to enact legislation of this sort is not my concern, but I am strongly of opinion that there is nothing in the Constitution of the United States to prevent it, and that Adair v. United States, 208 U. S. 161, and Lochner v. New York, 198 U. S. 45, should be overruled. I have stated my grounds in those cases, and think it unnecessary to add others that I think exist. See further Vegelahn v. Guntner, 167 Mass. 92, 104, 108; Plant v. Woods, 176 Mass. 492, 505. I still entertain the opinions expressed by me in Massachusetts.

Justice Day's dissent would have affirmed the liberty of contract against arbitrary legislative restraints but deferred more to the legislature on the question of whether this law upheld the public welfare. He also argued, "A man may not barter away his life or his freedom, or his substantial rights," arguing against Pitney's majority that such contracts were in fact coercive and not entered into freely.

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External links[edit]

  • Text of Coppage v. Kansas, 236 U.S. 1 (1915) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia