West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379; 57 S. Ct. 578; 81 L. Ed. 703 (1937)

Facts—Washington State laws prohibited wages below a living wage and conditions of labor detrimental to the health and morals of women and minors. Such wages were established by the state’s Industrial Welfare Commission composed of members of management, labor, and the government. Elsie Parrish brought suit to recover the difference between her wages and those established by the Industrial Welfare Commission over a period of years during which the West Coast Hotel Company had employed her.

Question—Is the statute regulating minimum wages for women and children contrary to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Decision—No.

Reasons—C.J. Hughes (5–4). The principle controlling the decision—the Fourteenth Amendment—was not in doubt. Those attacking minimum wage regulation alleged that they were being deprived of freedom of contract. “What is this freedom? The Constitution does not speak of freedom of contract. It speaks of liberty and prohibits the deprivation of liberty without due process of law. In prohibiting that deprivation, the Constitution does not recognize an absolute, an uncontrollable liberty. Liberty in each of its phases has its history and connotation. But the liberty safeguarded is liberty in a social organization that requires the protection of law against the evils that menace the health, safety, morals and welfare of the people. Liberty under the Constitution is thus necessarily subject to the restraints of due process, and regulation which is reasonable in relation to its subject and is adopted in the interests of the community is due process.”

The minimum wage requirement of the state of Washington did not seem to the Court to have gone beyond the boundary of its broad protective power. The wage was fixed after full consideration by representatives of employers, employees, and the public. No one was forced to pay anything; it simply for[1]bade employment at rates fixed below the minimum requirement for health and right living. This, the Court held, was a valid exercise of state police power, and it was the conclusion of the Court that “the case of Adkins v. Children’s Hospital should be, and it is overruled.” (This decision also had the effect of reversing Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo.)

In dissent, J. Sutherland argued for continuing adherence to precedents regarding freedom of contract and objected to the majority’s apparent consideration of economic exigencies rather than what Sutherland regarded as constitutional commands.

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