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Adkins v. Children's Hospital


ADKINS V. CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL, 261 U.S. 525 (1923), is a major precedent in the development of liberty of contract and substantive due process. In 1897, the United States Supreme Court held that the due process clauses of the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments protect the rights of persons to enter into contracts (Allgeyer v. Louisiana). Lochner v. New York (1905) extended this to contracts of employment, and restricted the states' police powers to regulate hours of employment previously acknowledged in Holden v. Hardy (1898). But in Muller v. Oregon (1908), the court accepted state regulation of female employees' hours, and in Bunting v. Oregon (1917) it upheld state regulation of both hours and overtime wages, for both men and women. Knowledgeable observers concluded that Bunting had implicitly overruled Lochner.

Adkins nevertheless held a District of Columbia minimum-wage statute unconstitutional. In his first major opinion, Justice George Sutherland held that "freedom of contract is…the general rule and restraint the exception." Regulation of women's wages fit none of the hitherto recognized categories of permissible state regulation, and violated "the moral requirement implicit in every contract of employment" that wages reflect exactly the value of the worker's contribution. Sutherland stated that ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 put women and men on a footing of equality, thereby implicitly condemning Muller. He denounced the policy of minimum-wage laws for forcing employers to shoulder welfare responsibilities. In dissents, Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Oliver Wendell Holmes criticized the majority for substituting their policy preferences for the legislatures'. Holmes ridiculed the notion that the Nineteenth Amendment had eliminated differences between men and women, and questioned the idea of liberty of contract itself as a constraint on the police power.

Adkins inhibited regulation of women's hours and wages until it was overruled by West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937).


Arkes, Hadley. The Return of George Sutherland: Restoring a Jurisprudence of Natural Rights. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Warmly supportive of the decision and its author.

Powell, Thomas Reed. "The Judiciality of Minimum-Wage Legislation." Harvard Law Review 37 (1924): 545–573. A now classic contemporary condemnation of the decision.

William M.Wiecek

See alsoLochner v. New York ; Muller v. Oregon .

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