Lochner v New York – A Wonderful Decision?

With the end of Senator Rand Paul‘s filibuster comes the questions. Mine is about his reference to Lochner v New York being a “wonderful” decision.

You get to the Lochner case. The Lochner case is in 1905. The majority rules 5-4 that the right to make a contract is part of your due process. Someone cannot deprive you of determining how long your working hours are without due process. So President Obama’s a big opponent to this, but I would ask him — among the other things I’m asking him today — to rethink the Lochner case. . . . I think it’s a wonderful decision.

This is puzzling to say the least. While Lochner did deal with Due Process under the Fourteenth Amendment, the case itself was about the government being able to limit workers hours in private industry.

Joseph Lochner, a baker in Utica New York was consistently requiring that his employees work more than 60 hours a week, which was considered to be a risk to his workers’ health, for which he was cited and fined. Mr. Lochner appealed his conviction twice but the State of New York upheld the decision each time. The case was then brought to the Supreme Court and in a vote of 5-4, the Court issued the following decision:

The court must determine whether the legislation is a fair, reasonable and appropriate exercise of the police power of the State, or an unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right of the individual to enter into a contract related to his business.

In other words, the Court, seemingly concerned about the violation of Due Process, had given Lochner the right to require his employees to work whatever hours he deemed fit without the “police power of the State” without concern for the health of his workers. This was the start of an era. The era finally came to a close with the determination of West Coast Hotel v Parrish in 1937. This was the groundbreaking case that allowed the State to impose minimum wage regulations on private employers, without violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the very foundation upon which Lochner was decided.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, ruled that the minimum wage law did not violate the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment and Parrish was entitled to damages. The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause provides that no state “shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” West Coast Hotel alleged that because the minimum wage law prevented employers and employees from freely negotiating wages, it restrained “liberty” of contract without due process of the law…

The Court next ruled that the minimum wage law did not violate “procedural” due process because it was a “reasonable,” not arbitrary, regulation. Though it interfered with contractual freedoms between “adults,” the Court held that it was now reasonable — given changing social and economic conditions — for governments to set a floor under which wage levels could not drop. Ultimately, the Court held that the minimum wage law was constitutional because it reasonably regulated contracts to protect the health and welfare of workers.

Okay, so back to Senator Paul. (via Think Progress):

Lochner was decided in 1905, and, while Paul is correct that the Lochner Era justices very occasionally struck down discriminatory laws, Jim Crow was still very much alive when Lochner was overruled in the 1930s. The Supreme Court decision that did the most to eradicate Jim Crow — Brown v. Board of Education — rested on the Constitution’s guarantee that no person shall be denied the “the equal protection of the laws,” not on some fabricated right to contract. And Brown alone was insufficient to overcome the campaign of “massive resistance” segregationists mounted in defense of Jim Crow.

In my opinion, Lochner was a horrendous decision. And even though we might bitch and moan about wage and hour administration, as HR, we’re in a much better place without Lochner than we would have been with it.

See Senator Paul in action here: