Lochner v. New York 1905

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Lochner v. New York 1905

Appellant: Joseph Lochner

Appellee: State of New York

Appellant's Claim: That New York's Bakeshop Act was an unreasonable exercise of state police power to regulate the working conditions at bakeries.

Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Frank Harvey Field, Henry Weismann

Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Julius M. Mayer, Attorney General of New York

Justices for the Court: David J. Brewer,Henry B. Brown, Melville W. Fuller, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Joseph McKenna, Rufus W. Peckham

Justices Dissenting: William Rufus Day, John Marshall Harlan I, Edward Douglass White

Date of Decision: April 17, 1905

Decision: Ruled in favor of Lochner by finding that the Bakeshop law unconstitutionally restricted an employer's liberty to contract for labor.

Significance: The decision recognized a sweeping new freedom of contract loosely drawn from the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. The decision had a major effect on twentieth century society to the detriment of the workingman. In the late 1930s, the Court shifted its focus to protection of individual rights over economic interests.

The way in which the courts interpret the U.S. Constitution changes greatly through time as society changes. From the birth of the nation in the 1780s until the 1870s, courts interpreted the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment as applying primarily to how fairly federal laws were applied, not so much what the intent of the law was. The amendment states that no person shall "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Citizens should receive sufficient notice and fair legal hearings before government could take action. Individual rights, such as freedom from discrimination, were not a concern as in modern America.

Liberty of Contract

In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution which also contained a Due Process Clause. Aimed at protecting individuals from state actions, the amendment came at a time the American Industrial Revolution was well underway with industry rapidly growing. Major changes in society were also occurring including an ever widening gap between the rich and poor. While employers were accumulating wealth, employees were working longer and longer hours, often in unhealthy conditions. Few laws existed for health and safety standards in places of employment.

Typical of this industrialization trend, many bakers in New York worked twelve hours a day for seven days a week. Conditions in city bakeries, often located in the basements of tenement houses, were cramped and filthy. With little time for rest, many workers essentially lived in their kitchens, sleeping at their workbenches. With poor ventilation, disease and early deaths were common. Believing that unsanitary and unsafe conditions affected the bakers and their products, the New York legislature passed the Bakeshop Act in 1895. Besides setting minimum sanitation standards, the act stated that no employee "shall be required or permitted to work in a biscuit, bread, or cake bakery . . . more than sixty hours in any one week, or more than ten hours in any one day."

Joseph Lochner

Joseph Lochner owned a small bakery in Utica, New York that produced biscuits, breads, and cakes for early-morning customers. Lochner's employees were frequently required to work late into the night, sometimes sleeping in the bakery before rising early to prepare the products for the customers. In April of 1901, one of his bakers, Aman Schmitter worked over sixty hours in one week. A complaint was filed with the police who arrested Lochner and charged him in violation of the Bakeshop Act.

Ten months after his arrest, Lochner's case went to trial in Oneida County Court. Intending to appeal to a higher court to challenge the law, Lochner refused to plead guilty or not guilty, and offered no defense to the charge. Judge W. T. Dunmore found Lochner guilty and sentenced him to pay a fifty dollar fine or spend fifty days in jail. Lochner immediately appealed the decision to the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court.

Before the five appeals court judges, Lochner argued that because of the Bakeshop Act he could not freely make a contract with his employees concerning pay and hours of work. This interfered with his right to earn a living and pursue a lawful trade as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. Three of the five judges were unconvinced with his arguments and upheld his conviction. They ruled the law was a proper exercise of the state's police powers to protect the health and safety of its citizens. Lochner appealed the decision to the New York Court of Appeals, but lost again.

Lochner next appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which agreed to hear his case. Lochner also decided to change lawyers, hiring Henry Weismann. Weismann was an interesting choice for in the 1890s he had been a lobbyist for the Journeyman Bakers Union and editor of the union's newsletter, the Bakers' Journal. Weismann was an advocate for laws limiting bakers' hours to eight hours a day. Leaving the union in 1897, Weismann opened two bakeries of his own leading a complete change in personal interests. He joined the Retail Bakers' Association to fight enforcement of the Bakers Act.

Before the Court, Weismann argued the law violated Lochner's "liberty of contract." He claimed that employers and employees had a basic right to negotiate a contract over conditions of their labor free from state restrictions as long as they did not interfere with another person's liberty of contract. Weismann asserted that baking was not a dangerous occupation. Therefore, the law was an inappropriate use of police powers depriving bakery owners of their due process rights.

New York countered that state restrictions to protect the health and well-being of workers and general public were nothing new. For example, physicians were required to obtain a license before practicing medicine. Using statistics, the state also argued baking was less healthy than many occupations. It involved heavy lifting and carrying while breathing air containing flour dust and germs. Lung diseases including tuberculosis were common. Because employees had less bargaining power than their employers when negotiating labor contracts, laws were needed for the public good to protect workers from being unfairly exploited.

The Court was left to decide between the right to contract versus the employees protection from poor working conditions. Justice Rufus Peckham delivered the findings of the Court in a close 5–4 decision. Peckham declared the act interfered with the right "to make contracts regarding labor upon such terms as they may think best, or upon which they may agree." Under the Fourteenth Amendment, people were free to purchase and sell labor without state restrictions, contended Peckham. Regarding the state's assertion that baking was an unhealthy occupation, Peckham stated, "The trade of a baker is not unhealthy . . . to such a degree which would authorize the legislature . . . to cripple the ability of the laborer to support himself and his family" by restricting his work.

Concluding that a direct relationship between the act and the health and welfare of New York bakers was not sufficient, Peckham wrote,

There is no reasonable ground for interfering with the liberty of a person or right of free contract, by determining the hours of labor, in the occupation of a baker . . . A law like the one before us involves neither the safety, the morals, nor the welfare of the public . . .

A Strong Dissent

In dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan believed that baking was a hard occupation. Though agreeing that the due process clause does protect the liberty to contract, the state's have power to regulate that liberty for the health and safety of its citizens. He pointed to many state mining laws limiting miners to eight hour days.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out that the peoples' rights are routinely limited by state laws. Holmes wrote,

The liberty of the citizens to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same . . . 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.

Holmes asserted that the state's have broad rights to restrict activities and the courts should be very cautious in overturning them.

Lochner's Legacy

For the next thirty-two years federal courts used Lochner to overturn numerous laws attempting to regulate various aspects of business, employment, and property interests. The decision launched a new era of constitutional interpretation lasting until 1937. During this time, public sentiment strongly supported the idea that government should minimally interfere with the newly evolving industrial capitalistic market, an idea known as laissez-faire economics.

Following the stock market crash of 1929, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to attempt to establish a social and economic reform program based on a series of new federal laws. The Court, using the Lochner decision, and consistently overturned the laws much to the dismay of the president and much of the public.


A rticle III of the U.S. Constitution describes how U.S. courts of law should operate. It directs the U.S. Supreme Court to keep a sharp distinction between its duties and that of Congress. The Court must restrain (to hold back) itself from doing Congress' job of making policy. To legal scholars the Lochner v. New York decision represents the best example of the lack of "judicial restraint" shown by the Court. The Court should give Congress and state legislatures the benefit of the doubt when interpreting laws. It should never overturn a law unless clearly violating some part of the Constitution. Rulings should not promote new ideas or preferences of the justices. The Court should rely only on precedents (previous decisions) or long established common law rather than attempting to promote some general public good considered important at the time. That is the legislature's role.

In Lochner, the Court's majority was reflecting the general public mood at the time of a growing young industrialist society based on a capitalistic economy. People believed the least amount of government regulation would allow the economy to grow "naturally." To support this idea in Lochner, the Court created an unwritten right from a loose reading of the Constitution, the right to contract. Decades later, the Court adopted a greater role of self-restraint by changing its interpretation of the Due Process Clause and overturning Lochner.

Finally, in 1937 the Court embraced Holmes' dissent in Lochner in the case of West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish. In letting stand a Washington state law setting a minimum wage for women, the Court ruled the freedom to contract was not unlimited. For the rest of the twentieth century, governments were given freedom to regulate the workplace and other economic affairs.

Suggestions for further reading

Ken, Paul. Lochner v. New York: Economic Regulation on Trial. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Leslie, Douglas L. Labor Law in a Nutshell. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Group, 1992.

Terrell, Leo J. The Things Your Boss Won't Tell You: Your Rights at the Work Place. Beverly Hills, CA: L. Terrell Enterprises, 1998.