Lochner v. New York 198 U.S. 45 (1905)

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LOCHNER v. NEW YORK 198 U.S. 45 (1905)

Lochner v. New York, a landmark decision of 1905, has been discredited by the evolution of constitutional law. Justice rufus w. peckham, writing for a 5–4 majority of the Supreme Court, invalidated a New York state statute forbidding employment in bakeries for more than sixty hours a week or ten hours a day. The rationale for the Court's opinion was that the statute interfered with the freedom of contract and thus the fourteenth amendment's right to liberty afforded both the employer and the employee. The Court stated that under the statute, viewed as a labor law, the state had no reasonable ground for interfering with liberty by determining the hours of labor. Seen as a health law, the statute affected only the bakers and not the public. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the law was neither necessary nor appropriate to accomplish its health objective. Moreover, the Court was of the view that if the law were upheld for the bakers, laws designed to protect other workers would also have to be upheld. In either case, said the Court, the statute was an illegal interference with the right to contract.

justice oliver wendell holmes, in an important and historic dissent, concluded that the legislature had the power to enact a law that interfered with full freedom to contract and that the personal biases of judges could not justify declaring a statute unconstitutional. Said Justice Holmes: "The constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory," an obvious reference to the laissez-faire view then widely accepted. Holmes's view was that a law interfered with the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of liberty only if "a rational and fair man necessarily would admit that the statute proposed would infringe fundamental principles of our people and our law." The dissent's view was that the statute, viewed either as a health or a labor law, did not violate these principles.

justice john marshall harlan also dissented, arguing with Justice Holmes that the wisdom of the statute or of a particular economic theory is judicially irrelevant. Citing studies that showed the hazards of bakery work, Harlan noted that legislatures in many states had enacted legislation dealing with the number of hours in a work day. Said Justice Harlan: "[I]t is enough for the determination of this case, and it is enough for this Court, to know that the question is one about which there is room for debate and for at least honest difference of opinion." If there are "weighty substantial" reasons for enacting a law it ought "to be the end of [the] case, for the State is not amenable to the judiciary, in respect of its legislative enactments, unless such enactments are plainly, palpably, beyond all question, inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States."

The Court implicitly overruled the Lochner result in bunting v. oregon (1917), but for three decades the decision influenced the Court as it scrutinized carefully and often struck down economic regulations as violations of substantive due process. It was not until the mid-1930s, in the wake of the Court-packing furor and especially the Court's approval of the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (1937), that judicial intervention in economic legislation declined. Although Lochner is now discredited, its focus upon substantive due process and fundamental rights has emerged in cases dealing with both contraception and abortion, namely griswold v. connecticut (1965) and roe v. wade (1973).

William B. Gould