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SCOTUS shifts from workers protections starting with Lochner v. New York

Quimbee: Lochner v. NY

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The Lochner era is one of the most controversial periods in United States Supreme Court jurisprudence.

In the years from the era’s namesake ruling of Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), until the 1937 “switch in time that saved nine” in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937), the Court struck down a number of economic regulations passed by the federal and state governments to protect workers under the doctrine of substantive due process.

New York, like many other states, enacted such legislation. Specifically, New York’s Bakeshop Act limited the number of hours the bakery employees could work. A bakery owner named Joseph Lochner was convicted for violating the Bakeshop Act for allowing an employee to work more than a 60-hour workweek. Lochner challenged his conviction, arguing that New York had exceeded its police powers.

Lochner claimed that the law violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because it interfered with a person’s freedom to contract for his labor.

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately struck down the law. The majority held that the right to contract to buy or sell labor was a constitutionally protected liberty interest, despite dissents by Justices Harlan and Holmes.

Although Lochner has never been expressly overruled, the Supreme Court has shifted decidedly away from the prevailing ideology of the period.


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