West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish 300 U.S. 379 (1937)

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This decision sustaining a Washington state minimum wage statute in March 1937 signaled a seismic shift in judicial philosophy toward acceptance of the validity of social and economic legislation. Together with the wagner act cases, the decision reflected a new, favorable judicial attitude toward the new deal, thus defusing franklin d. roosevelt'scourt-packing proposal.

The constitutionality of minimum wage legislation had a peculiar history. In muller v. oregon (1908) and bunting v. oregon (1917) the Justices had approved state laws regulating maximum working hours, including provisions for overtime wages. In 1917, the Court divided evenly on an Oregon minimum wage law. william howard taft, among others, confidently presumed that lochner v. new york's (1905) rigorous freedom of contract doctrines no longer applied. Yet in 1923, a 5–3 majority of the Court reaffirmed the Lochner ruling, and in adkins v. children ' s hospital (1923) the Court invalidated a district of columbia minimum wage statute. New Chief Justice Taft sharply attacked the majority's reasoning. He found no distinction between maximum hour and minimum wage laws : one was the "multiplier and the other the multiplicand." Although Taft reiterated his belief that Lochner had been tacitly overruled, Lochner nevertheless persisted until the Parrish decision in 1937.

After Adkins, the Court invalidated other state minimum wage laws. The Great Depression, however, stimulated new state laws, perhaps encouraged by Justice george sutherland ' s obiter dictum that "exceptional circumstances" might justify such legislation. But in more-head v. new york ex rel. tipaldo (1936), a 5–4 majority held to the Adkins precedent and invalidated a recent New York law. The Court's opinion masked Justice owen j. roberts's uneasiness. Roberts had supported pierce & butler, james c. mcreynolds, George Sutherland, and willis van devanter in Tipaldo, but he later revealed that the state counsel's argument that Adkins merely be distinguished, and not overthrown, had obliged him to follow the precedent. Six months later, Roberts provided the key vote to consider the Washington law. On the surface, the procedure was justified on the ground that the state court had upheld the statute, but the combination of the Tipaldo dissenters' strongly held views on constitutionality and Roberts's skepticism toward Adkins dictated a full-scale review of the issue.

Roberts later stated that he had decided in favor of the statutes after arguments in December 1936 and that he had successfully urged delaying the decision pending harlan fiske stone's recovery from illness in order to mass a majority. Stone returned shortly after Roosevelt submitted his court-packing proposal in early February. Chief Justice charles evans hughes then withheld the announcement until March 29, perhaps to avoid appearances of political submission.

Hughes's majority opinion decisively repudiated Lochner and Adkins. He argued that the Constitution nowhere enshrined freedom of contract and that "regulation which is reasonable in relation to its subject and is adopted in the interests of the community is due process." Seeking to deflect the outraged protests of his more conservative brethren, Hughes invoked Taft's Adkins dissent: "That challenge persists and is without any satisfactory answer."

Invoking the public interest doctrine of nebbia v. new york (1934), Hughes asked what could be "closer to the public interest than the health of women and their protection from unscrupulous and overreaching employers?" Accordingly, Hughes held that the minimum wage statute was reasonable and not "arbitrary or capricious." That, he concluded, "is all we have to decide."

Sutherland, speaking for the dissenters, passionately reiterated his Adkins doctrine. More broadly, Sutherland also implicitly addressed Stone's scathing dissent in united states v. butler (1936), which had pleaded for judicial self-restraint and an end to judges' imposition of their own social and economic predilections. The notion of self-restraint, Sutherland retorted, was "ill considered and mischievous"; it belonged "in the domain of will and not of judgment." Judges were bound to enforce the Constitution, he said, according to their own "conscientious and informed convictions." Sutherland concluded that freedom of contract remained the rule. The intervening economic conditions altered nothing, for "the meaning of the Constitution," he said, "does not change with the ebb and flow of economic events." Sutherland's dissent was both an apologia and an obituary for a judicial philosophy eclipsed by new realities.

Stanley I. Kutler


Mason, Alpheus T. 1956 Harlan Fiske Stone. New York: Viking Press.

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West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish 300 U.S. 379 (1937)

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West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish 300 U.S. 379 (1937)