Lochner v. New York (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
In Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, 25 S. Ct. 539, 49 L. Ed. 937 (1905), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law restricting the hours employees could work in the baking industry, as a violation of the freedom of contract guaranteed by the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. This seemingly minor decision spawned a new era in constitutional interpretation.
CONSTITUTIONAL LAW is often divided into three eras, the center of which is Lochner. In the pre-Lochner era (1789870), courts interpreted the Due Process Clause of the FIFTH AMENDMENT to have primarily a procedural content that protected persons against ARBITRARY governmental deprivations of life, liberty, and property. This procedural right meant that individuals were entitled to sufficient notice and a fair hearing before the government could take harmful action against them. Courts reviewed only the manner in which a particular law infringed on a substantive right, without evaluating the importance of the right or the severity of the infringement.
During the Lochner era (1870937), courts interpreted the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to have a substantive content that protected from governmental intrusion certain economic and property interests, such as the right of employers and employees to determine the terms and conditions of their employment...
(The entire section is 1910 words.)
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Lochner v. New York (Great American Court Cases)
Legal Citation: 198 U.S. 45 (1905)
People of the State of New York
That Lochner had not violated the New York Bakeshop Act because the law was an unreasonable exercise of police power.
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 Josiah Brewer, Henry Billings Brown, Melville Weston Fuller, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Joseph McKenna, Rufus Wheeler Peckham (writing for the Court)
William Rufus Day, John Marshall Harlan I, Edward Douglass White
Date of Decision
17 April 1905
In protecting the right to contract for labor, the Court overruled New York's Bakeshop Act, which regulated sanitary conditions and the number of hours that employees could work.
Lochner v. New York postponed protective legislation for women for decades, becoming one of the most...
(The entire section is 1600 words.)
Lochner v. New York (Supreme Court Drama)
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 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
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 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.
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.
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.