Jacobs, In Re 98 N.Y. 98 (1885)

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JACOBS, IN RE 98 N.Y. 98 (1885)

This exceptionally influential decision, cited hundreds of times by state and federal courts, reflected laissez-faire principles against government regulation of the economy. New York in 1884 enacted a statute to improve the public health by penalizing the manufacture of cigars on the same floor of tenement houses where people lived. Jacobs, a tenement occupant prosecuted under the statute, somehow retained william m. evarts, "the Prince of the American Bar," whose powerful defense of free enterprise convinced the New York Court of Appeals to decide unanimously against the constitutionality of the regulation. Judge Robert Earl, drawing heavily on Evarts's argument, larded his opinion with polemics against state infringement on liberty and property conducted under the pretext of the police power. The constitutional basis of the opinion is not clear because Earl stopped short of invoking the doctrine of freedom of contract, but the rhetoric of substantive due process as a limitation on legislative power to regulate the economy stands out. "Under the mere guise of police regulations," Earl said, "personal rights and private property cannot be arbitrarily invaded," and judicial review determines whether the legislative power exceeded the limits. The court found that the state plainly had not passed a health law but had trampled personal liberty.

Leonard W. Levy
(1986)