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SUPREME COURT HISTORY
The First Hundred Years
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Majority Rules
Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)

Photo of child laborers.

The Court decided for Dagenhart and overturned the Keating-Owen Act. Writing for a narrow 5-4 majority, Justice William Day held that the act was both an unconstitutional application of the Commerce Clause and a violation of states' rights as protected by the Tenth Amendment. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and three other justices dissented vigorously.

In the short-term, the Court's decision in Hammer v. Dagenhart invalidated the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act -- and also gave the Court a reputation for indulging in judicial activism. In the long term, however, the legal reasoning of Hammer v. Dagenhart did not hold up. Twenty-three years later, the Court would overturn Dagenhart in the 1941 landmark case United States v. Darby Lumber Co. In a decision that relied heavily on Holmes's reasoning, a unanimous Court upheld in Darby the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which prohibited full-time employment of most children under 16 and enacted a national minimum wage. Adopting Holmes' position, the decision in Darby held that the Tenth Amendment "states but a truism that all is retained which has not been surrendered."

Although most scholars suggest that improvements in economic and social conditions were ultimately responsible for the decline in child labor, congressional legislation in this area, legitimated by the Court, represented a symbolic commitment to the rights of the nation's workers and youth.


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Prigg v. Pennsylvania Oregon v. Mitchell New York v. United States