Lochner v. New York

Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), was a landmark decision of the US Supreme Court which held that limits to working time violated the Fourteenth Amendment.[1] The decision has been effectively overturned.[2][3][4]

Lochner v. New York
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued February 24, 1905
Decided April 18, 1905
Full case nameJoseph Lochner, Plaintiff in Error v. People of the State of New York
Citations198 U.S. 45 (more)
25 S. Ct. 539; 49 L. Ed. 937; 1905 U.S. LEXIS 1153
Case history
PriorDefendant convicted, Oneida County Court, New York, February 12, 1902; affirmed, 76 N.Y.S. 396 (N.Y. App. Div. 1902); affirmed, 69 N.E. 373 (N.Y. 1904)
New York State's regulation of the working hours of bakers was not a justifiable restriction on the right of freedom of contract under the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of liberty.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Melville Fuller
Associate Justices
John M. Harlan · David J. Brewer
Henry B. Brown · Edward D. White
Rufus W. Peckham · Joseph McKenna
Oliver W. Holmes Jr. · William R. Day
Case opinions
MajorityPeckham, joined by Fuller, Brewer, Brown, McKenna
DissentHarlan, joined by White, Day
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV; 1897 N.Y. Laws art. 8, ch. 415, § 110

A New York State law limited bakery employees' working hours to 10 hours per day and 60 hours per week. A five-judge majority held that the law violated the due process clause, stating that the law constituted an "unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract". Four dissenting judges rejected that view, and the dissent of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in particular, became one of the most famous opinions in US legal history.[citation needed]

Lochner is one of the most controversial decisions in the Supreme Court's history and gave the name to what is known as the Lochner era. During that time, the Supreme Court issued several decisions invalidating federal and state statutes that sought to regulate working conditions during the Progressive Era and the Great Depression. The period ended with West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937) in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of minimum wage legislation enacted by Washington State.[5]


Joseph Lochner, who owned Lochner's Home Bakery in Utica, claimed the New York Legislature's Bakeshop Act of 1895 to be unconstitutional. The Bakeshop Act regulated health conditions in bakeries and prohibited employees from working in bakeries for more than 10 hours per day or 60 hours per week. In 1899, Lochner was indicted on a charge that he violated Section 110 of Article 8, Chapter 415, of the Laws of 1897, as he had wrongfully and unlawfully permitted an employee working for him to work more than 60 hours in one week. He was fined $25 (equivalent to $768 in 2019) life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." In a series of cases, the US Supreme Court established that the Due Process Clause, which is found in both the Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments, is not only a procedural guarantee but also a substantive limitation on the type of control that the government may exercise over individuals. Although that interpretation of the due process clause has been controversial, it had become firmly embedded in American jurisprudence by the end of the 19th century.

Lochner argued the right to contract freely to be one of the rights encompassed by substantive due process.

Scholars have noted that when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868, 27 of the 37 state constitutions had adopted references to Locke's labor theory of property, which typically said: "All men are by nature free and independent, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring and possessing and protecting property: and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness." As such clauses were "deeply rooted in American history and tradition," they likely informed the original meaning of the scope and nature of the fundamental rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment in the eyes of Lochner-era justices.[6]

The Supreme Court had accepted the argument that the due process clause protected the right to contract seven years earlier in Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897). However, the Court had acknowledged that the right was not absolute but subject to the police power of the states. For example, in Holden v. Hardy (1898), the Supreme Court upheld a Utah law setting an eight-hour work day for miners. In Holden, Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote that while "the police power cannot be put forward as an excuse for oppressive and unjust legislation, it may be lawfully resorted to for the purpose of preserving the public health, safety, or morals." The issue facing the Supreme Court in Lochner was whether the Bakeshop Act represented a reasonable exercise of the state's police power.

Lochner's case was argued by Henry Weismann, who had been one of the foremost advocates of the Bakeshop Act when he was Secretary of the Journeymen Bakers' Union. In his brief, Weismann decried the idea that "the treasured freedom of the individual... should be swept away under the guise of the police power of the State." He denied New York's argument that the Bakeshop Act was a necessary health measure by claiming that the "average bakery of the present day is well ventilated, comfortable both summer and winter, and always sweet smelling." Weismann's brief contained an appendix providing statistics showing that bakers' mortality rates were comparable to that of white-collar professionals.


The Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that the law limiting bakers' working hours did not constitute a legitimate exercise of state police powers and so it was unconstitutional. The Court argued for freedom of contract and that unequal bargaining power was irrelevant. The decision was delivered by Justice Rufus Peckham. Lochner did not have to pay the fine.

Harlan's dissentEdit

Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Edward Douglass White and William R. Day.

Harlan contended that the liberty to contract is subject to regulation imposed by a state acting within the scope of its police powers. He offered the following rule for determining whether such statutes are unconstitutional:

The power of the courts to review legislative action in respect of a matter affecting the general welfare exists only "when that which the legislature has done comes within the rule that, if a statute purporting to have been enacted to protect the public health, the public morals or the public safety, has no real or substantial relation to those objects, or is, beyond all question, a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law."

Harlan asserted that the burden of proof should rest with the party seeking to have such a statute deemed unconstitutional.

Harlan argued that the Court gave insufficient weight to the state's argument that the law was a valid health measure addressing a legitimate state interest. He contended that it was "plain that this statute was enacted to protect the physical well-being of those who work in bakery and confectionery establishments." Responding to the majority's assertion that the profession of a baker was not an unhealthy one, he quoted at length from academic studies describing the respiratory ailments and other risks that bakers faced. He argued that the Supreme Court should have deferred to the New York Legislature's judgment that long working hours threatened the health of bakery employees: "If the end which the legislature seeks to accomplish be one to which its power extends, and if the means employed to that end, although not the wisest or best, are yet not plainly and palpably unauthorized by law, then the court cannot interfere."

Holmes' dissentEdit

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote three paragraphs accusing the majority of judicial activism and claimed the case to have been "decided upon an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain." He did not agree that the Fourteenth Amendment enshrined liberty of contract and cited laws against Sunday trading and usury as "ancient examples" to the contrary: "The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics." (The book advocated a strict laissez-faire philosophy). Holmes emphasized that "a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory."

Significance and legacyEdit

The case is famous because there is virtually universal agreement among judges and scholars that it was incorrectly decided. More important, it is the case in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the most influential dissenting opinion in the Court's history.

—Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, writing in 2011.[7]

The Supreme Court's due process jurisprudence over the next three decades was inconsistent, but it took a narrow view of states' police powers in several major labor cases after Lochner. For example, in Coppage v. Kansas (1915), the Court struck down statutes forbidding "yellow-dog contracts." Similarly, in Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923), the Supreme Court held that minimum wage laws violated the due process clause, but Chief Justice William Howard Taft strongly dissented and suggested that the Court instead should have overruled Lochner. The doctrine of substantive due process was coupled with a narrow interpretation of congressional power under the commerce clause. Justices James McReynolds, George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter, and Pierce Butler emerged during the 1920s and the 1930s as the foremost defenders of traditional limitations on government power on the Supreme Court and so were collectively dubbed by supporters of the New Deal the "Four Horsemen of Reaction." All four of them believed in laissez-faire economics.

In 1934, the Supreme Court decided in Nebbia v. New York that there is no constitutional fundamental right to freedom of contract. In 1937, the Supreme Court decided West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, which expressly overruled Adkins and implicitly signaled the end of the Lochner era by repudiating the idea that freedom of contract should be unrestricted.

Although the Supreme Court did not explicitly overrule Lochner,[8] it agreed to give more deference to the decisions of state legislatures. The Supreme Court sounded the death knell for economic substantive due process several years later in Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma (1955) by unanimously declaring, "The day is gone when this Court uses the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down state laws, regulatory of business and industrial conditions, because they may be unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought."

Modern substantive due processEdit

Since the end of the Lochner era, the Supreme Court has applied a lower standard of review to confront restrictions on economic liberty. A higher standard is used in reviewing legislation infringing on personal liberties. A line of cases dating back to the 1923 opinion by Justice McReynolds in Meyer v. Nebraska, which cited Lochner as establishing limits on the police power, has established a privacy right under substantive due process. More recently, in Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court held that women have a privacy right to determine whether or not to have an abortion. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Supreme Court reaffirmed that right but no longer used the term "privacy" to describe it.

Scholarly reactionEdit

The Supreme Court's decision in Lochner v. New York has been criticized by legal scholars. The law professor Bernard Siegan described it as "one of the most condemned cases in United States history."[9] According to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning thinktank, law professors often use Lochner, along with Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu v. United States, as examples of "how judges should not behave."[10]

Lochner is sometimes used as shorthand for extreme-right-wing constitutional theory.[11] However, it has come under harsh criticism from conservative and libertarian jurists as well since of Lochner embraced substantive due process, a doctrine that was arguably at odds with the original understanding of the Constitution. For example, the conservative legal scholar Robert Bork called the decision an "abomination" and the "quintessence of judicial usurpation of power."[12][13] Similarly, former Attorney General Edwin Meese said that the Supreme Court "ignored the limitations of the Constitution and blatantly usurped legislative authority."[14] Siegan, a self-described libertarian, described it as "a symbol of judicial dereliction and abuse."[9]

However, the decision also has attracted defenders by libertarians: the Cato Institute and the scholars Richard Epstein and Randy Barnett, who argue that it correctly protected economic liberty.[15][16]

Barnett has argued that the decision was basically correct in its presumption in favor of liberty of contract was basically right and that the decision was wrong only by perpetuating the misinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that had been established in the Slaughter-House Cases. According to Barnett, the liberty of contract is properly found in the Privileges or Immunities Clause, not in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[17] David Bernstein, in Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform, has argued that Lochner was well grounded in Supreme Court precedent and that its emphasis on limits to the states' police powers informed the Supreme Court's early civil liberties and civil rights cases.[18]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905).   This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ Bernstein, David. Only One Place of Redress: African Americans, Labor Regulations, and the Courts from Reconstruction to the New Deal, p. 100 (Duke University Press, 2001): "The Court also directly overturned Lochner by adding that it is no 'longer open to question that it is within the legislative power to fix maximum hours.'"
  3. ^ Dorf, Michael and Morrison, Trevor. Constitutional Law, p. 18 (Oxford University Press, 2010).
  4. ^ Patrick, John. The Supreme Court of the United States: A Student Companion, p. 362 (Oxford University Press, 2006).
  5. ^ Philips, Michael J. (2001). The Lochner Court, Myth and Reality: Substantive Due Process from the 1890s to the 1930s. Greenwood. p. 10. ISBN 0-275-96930-4.
  6. ^ Calabresi, Steven G.; Agudo, Sarah (2008). "Individual Rights Under State Constitutions When the Fourteenth Amendment Was Ratified in 1868: What Rights Are Deeply Rooted in American History and Tradition?". Tex. L. Rev. 87 (7): 88.
  7. ^ Stevens, John Paul (2011). Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir. Little, Brown and Company. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-316-19980-3..
  8. ^ Quimbee. "SCOTUS shifts from workers protections starting with Lochner v. New York". American Bar Association for Students. American Bar Association. Retrieved July 2, 2017.
  9. ^ a b Siegan, Bernard H. (1980). Economic Liberties and the Constitution. Univ of Chicago Pr. p. 23. ISBN 978-0226756639., cited in Stone, Geoffrey R; et al. (2009). Constitutional Law (6th ed.). Aspen Publishers. p. 744. ISBN 978-0735577190.
  10. ^ Millhiser, Ian. Rand Paul praises horrendous Supreme Court decision, would let employers ruthlessly exploit workers. ThinkProgress, 2013-03-07.
  11. ^ Ian Millhiser described as "Worse Than Lochner" constitutional interpretation that would hold unconstitutional all affirmative action policies as well as Social Security, Medicare, and Pell Grants.Millhiser, Ian (June 2011). "Worse Than Lochner". Yale Law & Policy Review. 29.
  12. ^ Bork, Robert H. (1989). The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law. Free Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0029037614.
  13. ^ Bork, Robert H. (2003). "The Judge's Role in Law and Culture" (PDF). Ave Maria Law Review. 1: 19, 21. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-06-15. Retrieved 2013-05-28.
  14. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20120429142809/http://www.communityrights.org/Newsroom/crcInTheNews/WP9-19-03.asp. Archived from the original on April 29, 2012. Retrieved July 3, 2012. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  15. ^ "Exposing Global-Warming Alarmism's Grasp". Cato Institute. May–June 2011.
  16. ^ Epstein, Richard A. (2003). "The 'Necessary' History of Property and Liberty". Chapman Law Review. 6. SSRN 396600.
  17. ^ Barnett, Randy E. (May 12, 2005). "Foreword: What's So Wicked About Lochner?". NYU Journal of Law & Liberty. 1 (1): 1–9. SSRN 721507.
  18. ^ Bernstein, David E. (2011). Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226043531.


External linksEdit