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Lochner v. New York

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Significance: Lochner is the most famous case in which the Supreme Court used the doctrine of substantive due process to overturn a statute regulating labor conditions.


Journeymen bakers in the late 1900's often worked more than one hundred hours per week, sometimes in squalid tenement cellars. There was good evidence that the combination of working long hours, breathing flour dust, and being subjected to extremes of hot and cold harmed the health of these workers. In New York, journalist Edward Marshall joined forces with the leader of the Bakers’ Union, Henry Weismann, in a crusade for legislation to improve working conditions in bakeries. In 1895 the state legislature unanimously passed the Bakeshop Act, regulating standards of sanitation and setting maximum hours of work. However, the statute harmed owners of small bakeries that operated on small profit margins. In 1902 one such owner, Joseph Lochner of Utica, was fined fifty dollars when one of his employees worked sixty hours during a week. Appealing the conviction, Lochner's attorneys argued that the statute violated the substantive liberty protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. After losing in New York courts, Lochner prevailed in the Supreme Court with a vote of five to four. Reaffirming the basic idea in Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897), Justice Rufus W. Peckham's opinion for the majority argued that the due process clause protected an unenumerated freedom of contract, and that the legislation regulating hours of labor interfered with the right of employers and employees to agree on the terms of employment. Although the Court had upheld a maximum-hour law for mines and smelters in Holden v. Hardy (1898), the Lochner majority found that such a law in bakeries exceeded the legitimate police powers of the states. Emphasizing the liberty of employees to work as many hours as they wished, Peckham's opinion suggested that employers and employees possessed similar powers in negotiating conditions of work. In dissent, John Marshall Harlan argued for a presumption in favor of the legislature's determination, so that the Court should overturn only laws that are “plainly and palpably beyond all question in violation of the fundamental law of Constitution.” In addition, he quoted statistical evidence that indicated serious health hazards in bakeries. Likewise, Oliver Wendell Holmes criticized the majority's narrow view of police powers, and he charged that the decision was influenced by social Darwinism and laissez-faire theories. The Lochner case firmly entrenched the freedom of contract doctrine into constitutional law. In subsequent cases, the Court followed the precedent in overturning numerous laws regulating businesses and working conditions. It was only in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937) that the Court firmly rejected the Lochner rationale. Often the period from 1905 to 1937 is referred to as the Lochner era.