Adkins v. Children's Hospital

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Adkins v. Children's Hospital
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued March 14, 1923
Decided April 9, 1923
Full case name Adkins, et al., constituting the Minimum Wage Board of the District of Columbia v. Children's Hospital of the District of Columbia; same v. Willie Lyons
Citations 261 U.S. 525 (more)
43 S. Ct. 394; 67 L. Ed. 785; 1923 U.S. LEXIS 2588; 24 A.L.R. 1238
Prior history Dismissed, D.C. Supreme Court; reversed and remanded, 284 F. 613 (D.C. Cir. 1922)
Subsequent history None
Minimum wage law for women violated the due process right to contract freely. D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Sutherland, joined by McKenna, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Butler
Dissent Taft, joined by Sanford
Dissent Holmes
Brandeis took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. V, XIX; Minimum Wage Law of the District of Columbia, 40 Stat. 960 (1918)
Overruled by
West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937)

Adkins v. Children's Hospital, 261 U.S. 525 (1923), is a United States Supreme Court opinion holding that federal minimum wage legislation for women was an unconstitutional infringement of liberty of contract, as protected by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Adkins was overturned in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937).


In 1918, Congress passed a law setting minimum wages for women and children in the District of Columbia. As in other cases, the question was one of balancing the police power of Congress to regulate health and safety with the right of individuals to conduct their own affairs without legislative interference. Children's Hospital and a female elevator operator at a hotel brought this case to prevent enforcement of the act by Jesse C. Adkins and the two other members of a wage board.


The Court opinion, by Justice Sutherland, held that previous decisions (Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908) and Bunting v. Oregon, 243 U.S. 426 (1917)) did not overrule the holding in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), protecting freedom of contract. The Muller cases, Sutherland noted, addressed maximum hours; this case addressed a minimum wage. The maximum hour laws left the parties free to negotiate about wages, unlike this law. Moreover, the minimum wage artificially restricts the employer’s side of the negotiation. The Court argued that if legislatures were permitted to set minimum wage laws, they would be permitted to set maximum wage laws.

Sutherland's majority opinion also cites the changes that had occurred in the years since Muller, and in particular the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote. He notes that Muller and other cases had emphasized differences between men and women as justifying special protection for women. But "[in] view of the great--not to say revolutionary--changes which have taken place since [Muller], in the contractual, political, and civil status of women, culminating in the Nineteenth Amendment, it is not unreasonable to say that these differences have now come almost, if not quite, to the vanishing point."

Chief Justice Taft, dissenting, argued that there was no distinction between minimum wage laws and maximum hour laws, considering that these essentially both add up to restrictions on the contract. He noted that Lochner’s limitations had appeared to be overruled in Muller and Bunting.

Justice Holmes, also dissenting, noted that there were plenty of other constraints on contract (e.g. blue laws, usury laws, etc.). He cited the reasonable person standard he had put forth in Lochner: if a reasonable person could see a power in the Constitution, the Court ought to defer to legislation using that power.


  • Bernstein, David E. Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights against Progressive Reform. Chapter 4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. ISBN 0-226-04353-3
  • Cushman, Clare (2001). Supreme Court Decisions and Women's Rights: Milestone to Equality. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly. pp. 19–20. ISBN 1-56802-614-5. 
  • Hart, Vivien (1994). Bound by our Constitution: Women, Workers, and the Minimum Wage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03480-X. 
  • Zimmerman, Joan G. (1991). "The Jurisprudence of Equality: The Women's Minimum Wage, the First Equal Rights Amendment, and Adkins v. Children's Hospital, 1905-1923". Journal of American History 78 (1): 188–225. doi:10.2307/2078093. JSTOR 2078093. 

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