Today in 1905: Lochner v. New York is decided

April 17, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryThe Lochner era is a near-universally derided period in American legal history in which the U.S. Supreme Court consistently struck down state and federal economic regulations.  These rulings were justified by the Court’s notion that the laws interfered with constitutional rights to contract or economic liberty.

The era’s jurisprudence is decried by the left wing and right wing alike, albeit for different reasons: while the left opposes the laissez-faire economic underpinnings of the Court’s Lochner era decisions, the right views rulings during this period as epitomizing “judicial activism,” in which the Court routinely supplanted the legislature’s conclusions with its own.

Although most modern scholars agree that this era began with the Court’s Allgeyer v. Louisiana decision in 1897, the case from which the era derives its name is Lochner v. New York, decided on April 15, 1905.

The details of the 110 year old decision are widely recognized by law students: New York passed the “Bakeshop Act” in 1897, which provided, in part, 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.”  Unlike the vast majority of modern day economic regulations, New York’s law imposed criminal sanctions, rather than civil ones.

Joseph Lochner, a baker, was fined $50 for violating this provision, and appealed his conviction on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional.  Interestingly enough, the original complaint brought against Lochner was submitted by a longtime associate and friend, seemingly as part of the state Master Bakers Association effort to challenge the law’s constitutionality.

Although this effort was unsuccessful at the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, which affirmed Lochner’s conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review Lochner’s case, and ruled 5-to-4 in his favor.  The majority struck down the Bakeshop Act as “an illegal interference with the rights of individuals, both employers and employees, to make contracts regarding labor…”

The Court did hold that some state regulations on labor were permissible, but only where the nature of the employment itself was considered a health concern (e.g. mining, smelting, etc).  Because the Court did not view New York’s law as being related to health concerns, since the Court noted no inherent health risks in the baking profession, the law was unconstitutional, and the Court further noted that and if such regulations were held as constitutionally permissible as merely regulating health, then “doctors, lawyers, scientists, all professional men, as well as athletes and artisans, could be forbidden to fatigue their brains and bodies by prolonged hours of exercise, lest the fighting strength of the state be impaired.”

The controversy surrounding Lochner is nothing new: the ruling was divisive from the moment it was handed down.  Nonetheless, the Court continued with the same philosophy for another 32 years, until it suddenly reversed course in 1937’s West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, effectively allowing for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, which heavily involved economic regulation, to proceed unabated.

But for as much as Lochner era jurisprudence is held in disdain, it actually marked the beginning of modern substantive due process jurisprudence, with two of the Court’s earliest cases invoking the principle to protect civil liberties (1923’s Meyer v. Nebraska and 1925’s Pierce v. Society of Sisters) being decided during the Court’s Lochner era.

Nevertheless, Lochner’s lasting public perception will likely remain as symbolic of the time when the Supreme Court protected business interests at the cost of workers’ while substituting its own legal conclusions for those of the legislature.