Lochner v. New York (1905)
Lochner v. New York is a 1905 decision in which the Supreme Court invalidated a New York statute that set the maximum number of hours that a baker could work in one week. New York justified the statute as a matter of public health and employee safety. Due to the poor ventilation of many bakeries at the time, bakers inhaled a great deal of yeast and other dust particles, which led to respiratory problems with prolonged exposure. By setting the maximum number of hours that a baker could work per week at sixty, the state was hoping to minimize the adverse effects of the working conditions. The Court had previously upheld a Utah statute case, Holden v. Hardy (1898), which limited miners to working eight hours a day, due to increased accidents caused by working long hours in the mines.
The majority of the justices on the Court, however, did not see the issue of the case in the same terms. They rejected the statute as a public health issue, which would be a justifiable use of the state’s police power. Instead, the statute was seen as an interference with liberty of contract, the liberty of an employer and employee to enter into an agreement. This liberty of contract, according to the Court, while not explicitly granted by the Constitution, was included in the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Since the Court found the statute outside of the scope of the policing power, the regulation was unconstitutional and was invalid. In his dissent, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. chastised the Court for protecting laissez-faire capitalism rather than the Constitution. According to Holmes, “a constitution is not established to embody a particular economic policy.” The Lochner precedent was used for the next thirty years to strike down many state regulations of working conditions. Lochner was finally abandoned as a precedent in the 1937 case West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish.
Lochner marked the beginning of the Court’s use of substantive due process. While the use of substantive due process emerged in economic regulation cases similar to Lochner, it has since been expanded and used in later cases involving the right to privacy, such as abortion in Roe v. Wade (1974) and private sexual conduct in Lawrence v. Texas (2003).
Paul Kens, Lochner v. New York: Economic Regulation on Trial (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998).
Heather Elise Trela
Last Updated: 2006