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Photo of Joseph Lochner.
Joseph Lochner, standing, right, was fined $50 for allowing an employee to work more than 60 hours in a week in his bakery. Above, Lochner in the yard behind his bakery with his wife, a neighborhood child, his son and three bakery employees.

Photo Credit: Mrs. John J. Brady
Lochner v. New York (1905)

In Lochner v. New York (1905), the Supreme Court ruled that a New York law setting maximum working hours for bakers was unconstitutional. The Court held that the Constitution prohibits states from interfering with most employment contracts because the right to buy and sell labor is a fundamental freedom protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision, and the resulting "Lochner era" it ushered in, led to the abrogation of many progressive era and Great Depression laws regulating working conditions. In 1937, the Supreme Court overturned Lochner in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish.

In 1897, the state of New York passed the Bakeshop Act -- a so-called "labor law" -- one section of which provided that "no employee shall be ... permitted to work in a biscuit, bread, or cake bakery or confectionery establishment more than sixty hours in any one week." Joseph Lochner, who owned Lochner's Home Bakery in Utica, was fined $50 for allowing an employee to work more than 60 hours in a week. Lochner was sentenced to incarceration in a county jail until he paid the fine or, if he didn't pay, for 50 days. Lochner appealed his conviction up to the New York Court of Appeals (New York State's highest court), which affirmed his sentence. Claiming the labor law was unconstitutional, Lochner appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Rufus Peckham, held that the act was unconstitutional and that the conviction of Lochner must be reversed. The Court construed the law as an absolute interference "with the right of contract between the employer and employees," then declared that "the general right to make a contract in relation to his business is part of the liberty of the individual protected by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution." The Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause prohibits states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. To the Court, the right to buy and sell labor through contract was a "liberty of the individual" protected under the amendment.

The Court admitted that while, in certain circumstances, the states may legitimately regulate certain contracts through their police powers, the baking industry, unlike the mining industry, was not an "unhealthy trade" and therefore was not legally subject to regulation. The Court held that act was "an unreasonable, unnecessary, and arbitrary interference with the right of the individual to his personal liberty," and irrationally limited freedoms "necessary for the support" of workers and their families. "The freedom of master and employee to contract with each other in relation to their employment ... cannot be prohibited or interfered with, without violating the Federal Constitution." In other words, the right to contract employment terms is generally protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against state interference.

Lochner v. New York, controversial from the time it was decided, rendered the judiciary a consistent adversary to legislatures for more than 30 years. Time and time again, the Supreme Court struck down laws regulating labor conditions, construing them as repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment. In the 1937 case West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, however, the Court reversed itself and began permitting some regulation of the labor market (although it did not, at that point, formally overturn Lochner). Today, the Court holds that states may freely regulate terms of employment without violating the Fourteenth Amendment so long as such regulation is rational and procedurally fair.

Though eventually formally struck down, Lochner's finding that "substantive," not just "procedural," rights are protected under the Fourteenth Amendment is still very much alive today. "Substantive" due process limits the type of activities a state may regulate, whereas "procedural" due process limits the means by which a state may regulate. While the Court now holds that the Fourteenth Amendment does not provide substantive due process in the economic sphere (such as a right to freely contract labor), it now holds that the amendment sometimes provides "substantive" due process in the social sphere (such as the right to freely use contraceptives -- see, e.g., Griswold v. Connecticut [1965]).

Alex McBride is a third year law student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is articles editor on the TULANE LAW REVIEW and the 2005 recipient of the Ray Forrester Award in Constitutional Law. In 2007, Alex will be clerking with Judge Susan Braden on the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

Fletcher v. Peck U.S. v. E. C. Knight Swift and Co. v. U.S. Lochner v. New York Schenck v. U.S. Adkins v. Children's Hospital Schechter v. U.S. U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish view all landmark cases