Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45; 25 S. Ct. 539; 49 L. Ed. 937 (1905)

Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45; 25 S. Ct. 539; 49 L. Ed. 937 (1905)

Facts—A New York statute forbade any employee in a bakery of confectionery establishment to be permitted to work over sixty hours in any one week, or an average of over ten hours a day. Lochner was convicted in Utica of requiring and permitting an employee to work more than sixty hours in one week.

Question—Does this statute regulating the hours of bakers violate the Fourteenth Amendment?


ReasonsJ. Peckham (5–4). The right of an individual to make a contract with regard to his labor is part of the liberty of the individual protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The right to purchase or sell labor is also part of this liberty, unless there are circumstances that exclude the right. Against these rights we have the police powers of the states, which under certain conditions may impose restrictions on the exercise of those rights. At times it is of great importance to determine which shall prevail—the right of the individual to labor for such a time as he may choose, or the right of the state to prevent an individual from laboring beyond a certain time prescribed by the state.

If this is a valid exercise of state police power, it involves the question of health. The Court held that there was no reasonable foundation for holding that this statute was necessary to safeguard the public health, or the health of bakers in general. The trade of a baker, while not the healthiest of occupations, does not affect health to such a degree that the legislature is warranted in interfering. At that rate, no trade or occupation would be able to escape acts of the legislature restricting the hours of labor.

The statute in question, the Court held, was an illegal interference in the rights of individuals, both employers and employees, for reasons entirely arbitrary. The Court was of the opinion that the only purpose of the act was to regulate the hours of labor in an occupation that is not dangerous in any degree to morals, nor in any substantial way injurious to health. This freedom to contract in relation to employment cannot be interfered with except by violating the Constitution.

J. Holmes and J. Harlan authored dissents arguing that the Court had extended the doctrine of freedom of contract too far. In a reference to a contemporary sociologist who was frequently cited by advocates of laissez-faire economics, Holmes observed that “the Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.”

Note—Critics of judicial activism, and of substantive due process, often cite this case as a cautionary tale about such activism.

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