At the turn of the century it was not uncommon for bakers to work more than 100 hours a week in bakeries that were often located in the basements of tenement houses. In 1895, in an attempt to protect workers and reform conditions that some saw as unhealthy and unfair, New York passed a law limiting the number of hours a baker could work to ten per day and sixty per week.
Opponents of the New York law saw it as an unwarranted governmental interference in the free market. Lochner was the owner of a small bakery. He argued that the law unconstitutionally violated the "liberty to contract" of bakery owners and their employees. Lochner cited the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment which guarantees the right to property, and said that this protects an individualís right to buy and sell their labor (their "property") freely.
As you read, notice the reasoning the court uses to justify its ruling
that the New York law limiting the number of hours a baker can work is
unconstitutional. Also make sure to read Holmesí dissent.
[The labor law of New York State] interferes with the right of contract between employer and employees concerning the number of hours in which the latter may labor in the bakery of the employer. The... right to make a contract... is part of the liberty of the individual protected by the [Due Process Clause of the] Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution. Under that provision no State can deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. The right to purchase or sell labor is part of the liberty protected by this Amendment.... [States do, however, have "police powers" which allow them to pass laws to protect] the safety, health, morals and general welfare of the public [and New York claims that this such a law].
In every case that comes before this court, therefore, where legislation of this character is concerned... the question necessarily arises: Is this a fair, reasonable, and appropriate exercise of the police power of the State, or is it an unreasonable, unnecessary, and arbitrary interference with the right of the individual to his personal liberty... to enter into contracts... which may seem to him appropriate or necessary for the support of himself or his family?
There is no reasonable ground for interfering with the liberty of a person or the right of free contract, by determining the hours of labor, in the occupation of a baker. There is no contention that bakers as a class are not equal in intelligence and capacity to men in other trades or manual occupations, or that they are not able to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the State, interfering with their independence of judgment and action. They are in no sense wards of the State. Viewed in the light of a purely labor law, with no reference whatever to the question of health, we think that a law like the one before us involves neither the safety, the morals nor the welfare of the public....
[If the law is to be upheld at all it must be] as a law pertaining to the health of the individual involved in the occupation of a baker. It does not affect [the health of] any other portion of the public than [bakers].... Clean and wholesome bread does not depend upon whether the baker works but ten hours per day or only sixty hours a week. The limitation of the hours of labor does not come within the police power on that ground.
It is a question which of two powers... shall prevail the power of the State to legislate or the right of the individual to liberty of person and freedom of contract.... The act must have a... direct relation, as a means to an end, and the end itself must be appropriate and legitimate, before an act can be held to be valid which interferes with the general right of an individual to be free in his person and in his power to contract in relation to his own labor....
We think the limit of the police power has been reached and passed in this case. There is, in our judgment, no reasonable foundation for holding this to be necessary or appropriate as a health law to safeguard the public health or the health of individuals who are following the trade of a baker....
Statutes of the nature under review, limiting the hours in which grown
and intelligent men may labor to earn their living, are mere meddlesome
interferences with the rights of the individual....
Justice Holmes disagreed with the decision of the majority and wrote
the following dissent in which he argued that the majority opinion was
a defense of the free market rather than an impartial interpretation of
the 14th Amendment. What does Holmes mean when he says, "the Fourteenth
Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencerís Social Statics"? And,
what does he mean when he says, "the Constitution is not intended to embody
a particular economic theory"?
JUSTICE HOLMES IN DISSENT:
I regret... that I am unable to agree with the judgment in this case, and that I think it is my duty to express my dissent.
This case is decided upon an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain. If it were a question whether I agreed with that theory, I should desire to study it further and long before making up my mind. But I do not conceive that to be my duty, because I strongly believe that my agreement or disagreement has nothing to do with the right of a majority [of the legislature of the state of New York] to embody their opinions in law.... State constitutions and state laws may regulate life in many ways which we... might think injudicious....
The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencerís Social
Statics.... [Some laws] embody convictions or prejudices that justices
are likely to share. Some may not. But [the United States]
Constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory, whether
of [Progressive] paternalism and the organic relation of the citizen to
the State or of laissez faire.... [The Constitution] is made for
people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding
certain opinions natural and familiar or novel and even shocking ought
not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying
them conflict with the Constitution of the United States....
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