West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish

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West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish (1937) is usually taken to mark the end of substantive due process and the liberty of contract notion developed by the Court in Lochner v. New York (1905) to limit a state’s police power to regulate economic activities within its borders. The case itself involved a State of Washington minimum wage law, very similar to a District of Columbia law that the Court had invalidated on liberty of contract grounds in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital fourteen years earlier, and to a New York law that the Court had declared unconstitutional in 1936 in Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipando.

Writing for the five-member majority in West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes totally repudiated Lochner, Adkins, and Morehead, maintaining that the Constitution did not protect liberty of contract, and that for a state economic regulation to pass muster under the Due Process Clause, it must merely be reasonable and not “arbitrary or capricious.” That, according to Hughes, “is all we [judges] have to decide.” Since 1937, the Court has rarely interfered with a state’s constitutional authority to regulate economic affairs, adopting a policy that one commentator has described as “What is reasonable, is constitutional.”

Ellis Katz

Last Updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Lochner v. New York; Police Power; Slaughterhouse Cases; Substantive Due Process