Morehead v. New York Ex Rel. Tipaldo 298 U.S. 587 (1936)

views updated


In June 1936 the Supreme Court ended its term with an opinion so startling that even the Republican party repudiated it at the party's national convention. The Republican plank read: "We support the adoption of State laws to abolish sweatshops and child labor and to protect women and children with respect to maximum hours, minimum wages and working conditions. We believe that this can be done within the Constitution as it now stands." "This" was precisely what the Court had ruled could not be done. It had defended states ' rights as it struck down national legislation, and in nebbia v. new york (1934) it had declared, "So far as the requirement of due process of law is concerned, a state is free to adopt whatever economic policy may reasonably be deemed to promote public welfare.…" Just two weeks before the Tipaldo decision, the Court had announced, in carter v. carter coal company (1936), as it had in the schechter poultry corp. v. united states (1935), that the regulation of labor was a local matter reserved by the tenth amendment to the states, and specifically the Court had referred to the fixing of wages as a state function. Thus the resolution of Tipaldo came as a surprise. The Court used the freedom of contract doctrine, derived from substantive due process, to hold that the states lack power to enact minimum wage laws. The precedent that controlled the case, the Court ruled, was adkins v. children ' shospital (1923).

althoughAdkins had seemed to block minimum wage legislation, the Court grounded that decision on the statute's failure to stipulate that prescribed wages should not exceed the value of labor services. New York had carefully framed a minimum wage law for women and children that embodied the Court's Adkins standard: the state labor commission was empowered to fix wages "fairly and reasonably commensurate with the value of the service or class of service rendered." By a 5–4 vote the Court held the state act unconstitutional. Justice pierce butler, speaking for the majority, declared, "Forcing the payment of wages at a reasonable value does not make applicable the principle and ruling of the Adkins Case." The right to make contracts for wages in return for work "is part of the liberty protected by the due process clause," Butler said, and the state was powerless to interfere with such contracts. Women were entitled to no special consideration. Any measure that deprived employers and women employees the freedom to agree on wages, "leaving employers and men employees free to do so, is necessarily arbitrary."

Chief Justice charles evans hughes dissented on ground that the statute was a reasonable exercise of the police power, and he distinguished this case from Adkins because the Tipaldo statute laid down an appropriate standard for fixing wages. Justices harlan fiske stone, louis d. brandeis, and benjamin n. cardozo concurred in Hughes's opinion but in a separate dissent by Stone they went much further. Stone accused the majority of having decided on the basis of their "personal economic predilections." He repudiated the freedom of contract doctrine, adding: "There is grim irony in speaking of the freedom of contract of those who, because of their economic necessities, give their services for less than is needful to keep body and soul together." Following the reasoning of Justice oliver wendell holmes, dissenting in Adkins, Stone declared that it made no difference what wage standard the statute fixed, because employers were not compelled to hire anyone and could fire employees who did not earn their wages. Stone would have followed the principle of Nebbia, which the majority ignored, and he would have overruled Adkins. A year later, after President franklin d. roosevelt proposed packing the Court, it overruled Adkins and Tipaldo in west coast hotel v. parrish (1937).

Leonard W. Levy


Leonard, Charles A. 1971 A Search for a Judicial Philosophy: Mr. Justice Roberts and the Constitutional Revolution of 1937. Pages 88–93. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press.

About this article

Morehead v. New York Ex Rel. Tipaldo 298 U.S. 587 (1936)

Updated About content Print Article