Lochner v. New York

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Lochner v. New York
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued February 24–24, 1905
Decided April 18, 1905
Full case nameJoseph Lochner, Plaintiff in Error v. People of the State of New York
Citations198 U.S. 45 (more)
25 S. Ct. 539; 49 L. Ed. 937; 1905 U.S. LEXIS 1153
Case history
PriorDefendant convicted, Oneida County Court, New York, February 12, 1902; affirmed, 76 N.Y.S. 396 (N.Y. App. Div. 1902); affirmed, 69 N.E. 373 (N.Y. 1904)
New York's regulation of the working hours of bakers was not a justifiable restriction on the right to freedom of contract under the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of liberty.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Melville Fuller
Associate Justices
John M. Harlan · David J. Brewer
Henry B. Brown · Edward D. White
Rufus W. Peckham · Joseph McKenna
Oliver W. Holmes Jr. · William R. Day
Case opinions
MajorityPeckham, joined by Fuller, Brewer, Brown, McKenna
DissentHarlan, joined by White, Day
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV; 1897 N.Y. Laws art. 8, ch. 415, § 110

Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905),[1] was a landmark U.S. labor law case in the US Supreme Court, holding that limits to working time violated the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision has been effectively overturned.[2][3][4]

A majority of five judges held that a New York law requiring that bakery employee hours had to be under 10 hours a day and 60 hours a week violated the due process clause, which in their view contained a right of "freedom of contract." They said there was "unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract." Four dissenting judges rejected this view, and Oliver Wendell Holmes's dissent in particular became one of the most famous opinions in US legal history.

Lochner is one of the most controversial decisions in the Supreme Court's history, giving its name to what is known as the Lochner era. During this time, the Supreme Court issued several decisions invalidating federal and state statutes that sought to regulate working conditions during the Progressive Era and the Great Depression. This period ended with West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937), in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of minimum wage legislation enacted by the State of Washington.[5]


Joseph Lochner, who owned Lochner's Home Bakery in Utica, claimed that the New York Legislature's Bakeshop Act of 1895 was unconstitutional. The Bakeshop Act regulated health conditions in bakeries and prohibited employees from working in bakeries for more than 10 hours per day or 60 hours per week. In 1899, Lochner was indicted on a charge that he violated Section 110 of Article 8, Chapter 415, of the Laws of 1897, as he had wrongfully and unlawfully permitted an employee working for him to work more than 60 hours in one week. He was fined $25 (equivalent to $800 in 2018). For a second offense in 1901, Lochner drew a fine of $50 (equivalent to $1,500 in 2018) from the Oneida County Court. Lochner appealed his second conviction. However, the conviction was upheld, 3–2, by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court. He appealed again to the New York Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, where he lost, 4–3. He then took his case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Lochner's appeal was based on the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution: "... nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." In a series of cases starting with Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the Supreme Court established that the Due Process Clause (found in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments) is not only a procedural guarantee, but also a substantive limitation on the type of control that the government may exercise over individuals. Although that interpretation of the due process clause is a controversial one (see substantive due process), it had become firmly embedded in American jurisprudence by the end of the 19th century. Lochner argued that the right to contract freely was one of the rights encompassed by substantive due process.

Scholars have noted that when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868, 27 out of 37 state constitutions had Lockean Provisos, which typically said: "All men are by nature free and independent, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring and possessing and protecting property: and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness." As such clauses were "deeply rooted in American history and tradition," they likely informed the original meaning of the scope and nature of the fundamental rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment in the eyes of Lochner-era justices.[6]

The Supreme Court had accepted the argument that the due process clause protected the right to contract seven years earlier, in Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897). However, the Court had acknowledged that the right was not absolute, but subject to the police power of the states. For example, in Holden v. Hardy (1898), the Supreme Court upheld a Utah law setting an eight-hour work day for miners. In Holden, Justice Henry Brown wrote that while "the police power cannot be put forward as an excuse for oppressive and unjust legislation, it may be lawfully resorted to for the purpose of preserving the public health, safety, or morals." The issue facing the Supreme Court in Lochner was whether the Bakeshop Act represented a reasonable exercise of the state's police power.

Lochner's case was argued by Henry Weismann, who had been one of the foremost advocates of the Bakeshop Act when he was Secretary of the Journeymen Bakers' Union. In his brief, Weismann decried the idea that "the treasured freedom of the individual ... should be swept away under the guise of the police power of the State." He denied New York's argument that the Bakeshop Act was a necessary health measure by claiming that the "average bakery of the present day is well ventilated, comfortable both summer and winter, and always sweet smelling." Weismann's brief contained an appendix providing statistics showing that bakers' mortality rates were comparable to that of white-collar professionals.


The Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that the law limiting bakers' working hours did not constitute a legitimate exercise of state police powers, so was unconstitutional. It argued for freedom of contract, and that unequal bargaining power was irrelevant. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Justice Rufus Peckham.

Justice Rufus Peckham delivered the opinion of the majority.

The question whether this act is valid as a labor law, pure and simple, may be dismissed in a few words. There is no reasonable ground for interfering with the liberty of person or the right of free contract by determining the hours of labor in the occupation of a baker. There is no contention that bakers as a class are not equal in intelligence and capacity to men in other trades or manual occupations, or that they are not able to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the State, interfering with their independence of judgment and of action. They are in no sense wards of the State. Viewed in the light of a purely labor law, with no reference whatever to the question of health, we think that a law like the one before us involves neither the safety, the morals, nor the welfare of the public, and that the interest of the public is not in the slightest degree affected by such an act. The law must be upheld, if at all, as a law pertaining to the health of the individual engaged in the occupation of a baker. It does not affect any other portion of the public than those who are engaged in that occupation. Clean and wholesome bread does not depend upon whether the baker works but ten hours per day or only sixty hours a week. The limitation of the hours of labor does not come within the police power on that ground.

It is a question of which of two powers or rights shall prevail – the power of the State to legislate or the right of the individual to liberty of person and freedom of contract. The mere assertion that the subject relates though but in a remote degree to the public health does not necessarily render the enactment valid. The act must have a more direct relation, as a means to an end, and the end itself must be appropriate and legitimate, before an act can be held to be valid which interferes with the general right of an individual to be free in his person and in his power to contract in relation to his own labor.

This case has caused much diversity of opinion in the state courts. In the Supreme Court, two of the five judges composing the Appellate Division dissented from the judgment affirming the validity of the act. In the Court of Appeals, three of the seven judges also dissented from the judgment upholding the statute. Although found in what is called a labor law of the State, the Court of Appeals has upheld the act as one relating to the public health -- in other words, as a health law. One of the judges of the Court of Appeals, in upholding the law, stated that, in his opinion, the regulation in question could not be sustained unless they were able to say, from common knowledge, that working in a bakery and candy factory was an unhealthy employment. The judge held that, while the evidence was not uniform, it still led him to the conclusion that the occupation of a baker or confectioner was unhealthy, and tended to result in diseases of the respiratory organs. Three of the judges dissented from that view, and they thought the occupation of a baker was not to such an extent unhealthy as to warrant the interference of the legislature with the liberty of the individual.

We think the limit of the police power has been reached and passed in this case. There is, in our judgment, no reasonable foundation for holding this to be necessary or appropriate as a health law to safeguard the public health or the health of the individuals who are following the trade of a baker. If this statute be valid, and if, therefore, a proper case is made out in which to deny the right of an individual, sui juris, as employer or employee, to make contracts for the labor of the latter under the protection of the provisions of the Federal Constitution, there would seem to be no length to which legislation of this nature might not go. The case differs widely, as we have already stated, from the expressions of this court in regard to laws of this nature, as stated in Holden v. Hardy and Jacobson v. Massachusetts, supra.

We think that there can be no fair doubt that the trade of a baker, in and of itself, is not an unhealthy one to that degree which would authorize the legislature to interfere with the right to labor, and with the right of free contract on the part of the individual, either as employer or employee. In looking through statistics regarding all trades and occupations, it may be true that the trade of a baker does not appear to be as healthy as some other trades, and is also vastly more healthy than still others. To the common understanding, the trade of a baker has never been regarded as an unhealthy one. Very likely, physicians would not recommend the exercise of that or of any other trade as a remedy for ill health. Some occupations are more healthy than others, but we think there are none which might not come under the power of the legislature to supervise and control the hours of working therein if the mere fact that the occupation is not absolutely and perfectly healthy is to confer that right upon the legislative department of the Government. It might be safely affirmed that almost all occupations more or less affect the health. There must be more than the mere fact of the possible existence of some small amount of unhealthiness to warrant legislative interference with liberty. It is unfortunately true that labor, even in any department, may possibly carry with it the seeds of unhealthiness. But are we all, on that account, at the mercy of legislative majorities? A printer, a tinsmith, a locksmith, a carpenter, a cabinetmaker, a dry goods clerk, a bank's, a lawyer's or a physician's clerk, or a clerk in almost any kind of business, would all come under the power of the legislature on this assumption. No trade, no occupation, no mode of earning one's living could escape this all-pervading power, and the acts of the legislature in limiting the hours of labor in all employments would be valid although such limitation might seriously cripple the ability of the laborer to support himself and his family. In our large cities there are many buildings into which the sun penetrates for but a short time in each day, and these buildings are occupied by people carrying on the business of bankers, brokers, lawyers, real estate, and many other kinds of business, aided by many clerks, messengers, and other employs. Upon the assumption of the validity of this act under review, it is not possible to say that an act prohibiting lawyers' or bank clerks, or others from contracting to labor for their employers more than eight hours a day would be invalid. It might be said that it is unhealthy to work more than that number of hours in an apartment lighted by artificial light during the working hours of the day; that the occupation of the bank clerk, the lawyer's clerk, the real estate clerk, or the broker's clerk in such offices is therefore unhealthy, and the legislature, in its paternal wisdom, must therefore have the right to legislate on the subject of, and to limit the hours for, such labor, and, if it exercises that power and its validity be questioned, it is sufficient to say it has reference to the public health; it has reference to the health of the employees condemned to labor day after day in buildings where the sun never shines; it is a health law, and therefore it is valid, and cannot be questioned by the courts.

Harlan's dissent[edit]

Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Edward Douglass White and William R. Day. Harlan contended that the liberty to contract is subject to regulation imposed by a state acting within the scope of its police powers. Harlan offered the following rule for determining whether such statutes are unconstitutional:

The power of the courts to review legislative action in respect of a matter affecting the general welfare exists only "when that which the legislature has done comes within the rule that, if a statute purporting to have been enacted to protect the public health, the public morals or the public safety, has no real or substantial relation to those objects, or is, beyond all question, a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law."

Harlan asserted that the burden of proof should rest with the party seeking to have such a statute deemed unconstitutional.

Harlan's dissent argued that the Court gave insufficient weight to the state's argument that the law was a valid health measure addressing a legitimate state interest. Harlan contended that it was "plain that this statute was enacted to protect the physical well-being of those who work in bakery and confectionery establishments." Responding to the majority's assertion that the profession of a baker was not an unhealthy one, he quoted at length from academic studies describing the respiratory ailments and other risks that bakers faced. He argued that the Supreme Court should have deferred to the New York Legislature's judgment that long working hours threatened the health of bakery employees. According to Harlan, "If the end which the legislature seeks to accomplish be one to which its power extends, and if the means employed to that end, although not the wisest or best, are yet not plainly and palpably unauthorized by law, then the court cannot interfere."

Holmes' dissent[edit]

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote three paragraphs accusing the majority of judicial activism, claiming the case was "decided upon an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain." The Fourteenth Amendment did not enshrine liberty of contract, because laws against Sunday trading and usury were "ancient examples" to the contrary: "The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics" (a book advocating strict laissez faire philosophy). He concluded, "a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory."

This case is decided upon an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain. If it were a question whether I agreed with that theory, I should desire to study it further and long before making up my mind. But I do not conceive that to be my duty, because I strongly believe that my agreement or disagreement has nothing to do with the right of a majority to embody their opinions in law. It is settled by various decisions of this court that state constitutions and state laws may regulate life in many ways which we, as legislators, might think as injudicious, or, if you like, as tyrannical, as this, and which, equally with this, interfere with the liberty to contract. Sunday laws and usury laws are ancient examples. A more modern one is the prohibition of lotteries. The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which has been a shibboleth for some well known writers, is interfered with by school laws, by the Post Office, by every state or municipal institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable, whether he likes it or not. The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics. The other day, we sustained the Massachusetts vaccination law. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11. United States and state statutes and decisions cutting down the liberty to contract by way of combination are familiar to this court. Northern Securities Co. v. United States, 193 U. S. 197. Two years ago, we upheld the prohibition of sales of stock on margins or for future delivery in the constitution of California. Otis v. Parker, 187 U. S. 606. The decision sustaining an eight hour law for miners is still recent. Holden v. Hardy, 169 U. S. 366. Some of these laws embody convictions or prejudices which judges are likely to share. Some may not. But a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory, whether of paternalism and the organic relation of the citizen to the State or of laissez faire.

It is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar or novel and even shocking ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution of the United States.

General propositions do not decide concrete cases. The decision will depend on a judgment or intuition more subtle than any articulate major premise. But I think that the proposition just stated, if it is accepted, will carry us far toward the end. Every opinion tends to become a law. I think that the word liberty in the Fourteenth Amendment is perverted when it is held to prevent the natural outcome of a dominant opinion, unless it can be said that a rational and fair man necessarily would admit that the statute proposed would infringe fundamental principles as they have been understood by the traditions of our people and our law. It does not need research to show that no such sweeping condemnation can be passed upon the statute before us. A reasonable man might think it a proper measure on the score of health. Men whom I certainly could not pronounce unreasonable would uphold it as a first instalment of a general regulation of the hours of work. Whether in the latter aspect it would be open to the charge of inequality I think it unnecessary to discuss.

Significance and legacy[edit]

The case is famous because there is virtually universal agreement among judges and scholars that it was incorrectly decided. More important, it is the case in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the most influential dissenting opinion in the Court's history.

—Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, writing in 2011.[7]

The Supreme Court's due process jurisprudence over the next three decades was inconsistent, but it took a narrow view of states' police powers in several major labor cases after Lochner. For example, in Coppage v. Kansas (1915), the Court struck down statutes forbidding "yellow-dog contracts." Similarly, in Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923), the Supreme Court held that minimum wage laws violated the due process clause, but Chief Justice William Howard Taft strongly dissented, suggesting that the Court instead should have overruled Lochner. The doctrine of substantive due process was coupled with a narrow interpretation of congressional power under the commerce clause. Justices James McReynolds, George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter, and Pierce Butler emerged during the 1920s and 1930s as the foremost defenders of traditional limitations on government power on the Supreme Court, so were collectively dubbed by partisans of the New Deal the "Four Horsemen of Reaction." All four believed in laissez faire economics.

In 1934, the Supreme Court decided Nebbia v. New York stating that no constitutional fundamental right to freedom of contract exists. In 1937, the Supreme Court decided West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, which expressly overruled Adkins and implicitly signaled the end of the Lochner era by repudiating the idea that freedom of contract should be unrestricted.

Although the Supreme Court did not explicitly overrule Lochner,[8] it agreed to give more deference to the decisions of state legislatures. The Court sounded the death knell for economic substantive due process several years later in Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma (1955). In that case, a unanimous Supreme Court declared, "The day is gone when this Court uses the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down state laws, regulatory of business and industrial conditions, because they may be unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought."

Coming at a time of mounting political pressure over the judiciary's stance toward the New Deal, the Court's shift is sometimes called "the switch in time that saved nine."

Modern substantive due process[edit]

In the post-Lochner era, the Supreme Court has applied a lower standard of review to confront restrictions on economic liberty. A higher standard is used in reviewing legislation infringing on personal liberties. A line of cases dating back to the 1923 opinion by Justice McReynolds in Meyer v. Nebraska, citing Lochner as establishing limits on the police power, has established a privacy right under substantive due process. More recently, in Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court held that women have a privacy right to determine whether or not to have an abortion. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey reaffirmed that right, but the Court no longer used the term "privacy" to describe it.

Scholarly reaction[edit]

The Supreme Court's decision in Lochner v. New York has been criticized by legal scholars. Law professor Bernard Siegan described it as "one of the most condemned cases in United States history."[9] According to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, law professors often use Lochner, along with Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu v. United States, as examples of "how judges should not behave."[10]

Lochner is sometimes used as shorthand for extreme right-wing constitutional theory.[11] However, it has come under harsh criticism from conservative and libertarian jurists, as well, because of the Lochner Court's embrace of substantive due process, a doctrine at odds with the original understanding of the Constitution. For example, conservative legal scholar Robert Bork called the decision an "abomination" and the "quintessence of judicial usurpation of power."[12][13] Similarly, former Attorney General Edwin Meese said that the Supreme Court "ignored the limitations of the Constitution and blatantly usurped legislative authority."[14] Siegan, a self-described libertarian, described it as "a symbol of judicial dereliction and abuse."[9]

However, the decision also has attracted defenders by libertarians: the Cato Institute and the scholars Richard Epstein and Randy Barnett, who argue that Lochner was correct in its protection of economic liberty.[15][16] Randy Barnett has argued that Lochner's presumption in favor of liberty of contract was basically right; the decision was wrong only in that it perpetuated the misinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that was established in the Slaughter-House Cases. According to Barnett, liberty of contract is properly found in the Privileges or Immunities Clause, not in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[17] David Bernstein, in Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform, argues that the decision in Lochner was well grounded in Supreme Court precedent and that the decision's emphasis on limits to the states' police powers informed the Court's early civil liberties and civil rights cases.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905).  This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ Bernstein, David. Only One Place of Redress: African Americans, Labor Regulations, and the Courts from Reconstruction to the New Deal, p. 100 (Duke University Press, 2001): "The Court also directly overturned Lochner by adding that it is no 'longer open to question that it is within the legislative power to fix maximum hours.'"
  3. ^ Dorf, Michael and Morrison, Trevor. Constitutional Law, p. 18 (Oxford University Press, 2010).
  4. ^ Patrick, John. The Supreme Court of the United States: A Student Companion, p. 362 (Oxford University Press, 2006).
  5. ^ Philips, Michael J. (2001). The Lochner Court, Myth and Reality: Substantive Due Process from the 1890s to the 1930s. Greenwood. p. 10. ISBN 0-275-96930-4.
  6. ^ Calabresi, Steven G.; Agudo, Sarah (2008). "Individual Rights Under State Constitutions When the Fourteenth Amendment Was Ratified in 1868: What Rights Are Deeply Rooted in American History and Tradition?". Tex. L. Rev. 87 (7): 88.
  7. ^ Stevens, John Paul (2011). Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir. Little, Brown and Company. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-316-19980-3..
  8. ^ Quimbee. "SCOTUS shifts from workers protections starting with Lochner v. New York". American Bar Association for Students. American Bar Association. Retrieved July 2, 2017.
  9. ^ a b Siegan, Bernard H. (1980). Economic Liberties and the Constitution. Univ of Chicago Pr. p. 23. ISBN 978-0226756639., cited in Stone, Geoffrey R; et al. (2009). Constitutional Law (6th ed.). Aspen Publishers. p. 744. ISBN 978-0735577190.
  10. ^ Millhiser, Ian. Rand Paul praises horrendous Supreme Court decision, would let employers ruthlessly exploit workers. ThinkProgress, 2013-03-07.
  11. ^ Ian Millhiser described as "Worse Than Lochner" constitutional interpretation that would hold unconstitutional all affirmative action policies as well as Social Security, Medicare, and Pell Grants. Millhiser, Ian (June 2011). "Worse Than Lochner". Yale Law & Policy Review. 29.
  12. ^ Bork, Robert H. (1989). The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law. Free Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0029037614.
  13. ^ Bork, Robert H. (2003). "The Judge's Role in Law and Culture" (PDF). Ave Maria Law Review. 1: 19, 21.
  14. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20120429142809/http://www.communityrights.org/Newsroom/crcInTheNews/WP9-19-03.asp. Archived from the original on April 29, 2012. Retrieved July 3, 2012. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  15. ^ "Exposing Global-Warming Alarmism's Grasp". Cato Institute. May–June 2011.
  16. ^ Epstein, Richard A. (2003). "The 'Necessary' History of Property and Liberty". Chapman Law Review. 6. SSRN 396600.
  17. ^ Barnett, Randy E. (May 12, 2005). "Foreword: What's So Wicked About Lochner?". NYU Journal of Law & Liberty. 1 (1): 1–9. SSRN 721507.
  18. ^ Bernstein, David E. (2011). Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform. University of Chicago Press.


  • Bernstein, David E. (2012). Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights against Progressive Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-04353-3.
  • Bernstein, David E. (2005). "Lochner v. New York: A Centennial Retrospective". Washington University Law Quarterly. 85 (5): 1469–1528. SSRN 918404..
  • Hall, Kermit; et al. (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195058356..
  • Kens, Paul (1998). Lochner v. New York: Economic Regulation on Trial. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0155068674..
  • Tushnet, Mark (2008). I dissent: Great Opposing Opinions in Landmark Supreme Court Cases. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 81–92. ISBN 978-0-8070-0036-6..
  • Warren, Charles (1924), The Supreme Court in United States History, (3 volumes), Boston: Little, Brown and Co., LCCN 25006510

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