Essay: Lochner v. New York Economic Regulations on Trial

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Lochner v. New York: Economic Regulations on Trial

The 1905 Supreme Court case Lochner v. New York stands as one of the most glaring examples of judicial misuse of power. In the case, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a New York law that put a ceiling on the number of hours a baker could work in a day and in a week. The Bakeshop Act, unanimously passed by the New York Legislature in 1896, prohibited persons from working in bakeries for more than 10 hours in one day, and 60 hours in one week. On two occasions, Joseph Lochner, a Utica bakery owner, was fined for overworking an employee. Lochner decided to appeal his second fine (Paul).

The Appellate Department of the New York Supreme Court ruled against Lochner in his appeal. The conviction was upheld, but Lochner continued to fight. He next took his case to the New York Court of appeals, the highest court in the state. He lost this appeal by a margin of 4-3. Lochner subsequently took his case to the Supreme Court where his conviction was overturned and the law informing his conviction was ruled unconstitutional (Paul).

Justice Rufus Peckham wrote the opinion of the Court, representing the thoughts of those justices who sided with the majority. Lochner used his Constitutionally guaranteed Fourteenth Amendment right to life, liberty, or property as his defense; he claimed that the Bakeshop Act denied him these rights without due process of law. Siding with him, Justice Peckham wrote that the Fourteenth Amendment protected a person's general right to make a contract in relation to his business. He referred to the "police powers" of the state, but spoke of them negatively, saying that such powers were not defined clearly. In addition, Justice Peckham supported a belief that state police powers were subject to limitations, or states would be able to pass any law using police power as justification (Paul).

Perhaps most importantly, Justice Peckham opined against the Attorney General of New York, who had written that the government had a right to protect citizens against their own lack of knowledge. Justice Peckham refuted this claim by arguing that bakers are not wards of the state. They can protect their own rights and care for themselves without the legislative assistance of the State. Peckham also claimed in his brief that the trade of a baker is not considered intrinsically unhealthy. Unlike that of a miner, the work of a baker, according to Justice Peckham, did not hold natural danger. In 1898, the Court upheld a ruling limiting the workday for workers in mines and smelters to an eight-hour maximum. As it relates to mining and smelting, the danger of the work is obvious; Peckham argued that this was not the case for bakers. Based on these arguments, five of the nine Supreme Court justices held that the New York Bakeshop Act was not a valid exercise of the state's police powers (Paul).

Justice John Marshall Harlan disagreed with the majority. His primary argument was that the Supreme Court should have sided with those courts that preceded them in this case. The New York Legislature passed the Bakeshop Act unanimously; two separate New York courts upheld Lochner's conviction, albeit by small margins. Harlan argued that the Supreme Court's job is to overturn rulings that are unconstitutional, or are unsubstantial in their purpose. The Bakeshop Act did not fit into these parameters. It was a law that was put into place specifically for the purpose of protecting employees of bakeries from being overworked. That should have been the entirety of the scope of the Supreme Court's prevue. They were not in a position to have additional information about that baking industry that was unavailable to those lawmakers and courts that preceded them. Therefore, they should not have overturned the conviction. To put the argument in his words, Harlan claimed that legislative enactments should be enforced "unless they are plainly and palpably beyond all question in violation of the fundamental law of the constitution" (Paul 68).

It is easy for one to get lost in the legal ramifications of this case, but the fact is that this case began with real stories about real people who were experiencing difficulties in the baking industry. It is not as though the New York Legislature haphazardly passed a random law for the mere sake of flexing their lawmaking muscles. In fact, they were attempting to serve their constituency in thoughtful and responsible manner. It appears as though the majority of the Supreme Court did not consider this fact when making their decision. This is the reason the ruling has remained so controversial over the years. It is why this case is considered a clear example of misuse of judicial power.

As the turn of the century approached, it was not uncommon for bakers to work over 100 weekly hours. In addition to the long hours, one must consider the working conditions. Bakeries of the time were frequently found in cellars of tenement houses. Such locations were damp and had severe extremes of both hot and cold. When combined with the prolonged exposure to flour dust the bakers had to endure, the conditions of late 19th century bakeries were less than sanitary to say the least. Regardless of the trade, unsanitary working conditions have a deleterious effect on the health of the workers. This is what late 19th century bakers were facing, and it was the primary impetus behind the passing of several laws directed at regulating sanitary conditions, reforming working conditions, and reducing the hours of labor (Paul).

Justice Peckham argued in his brief that workers were not wards of the state and they could fend for themselves as far as judging whether or not their working conditions were fair. However, this argument is not entirely accurate (Paul). In reality, the workers of the time were not in a position to bargain for more equitable conditions of employment. In most cases, they were at the mercy of their employers in such cases. Unlike workers who are required to possess a certain level of education or a certain amount of experience to perform their jobs adequately, trade workers are easily replaced. This means that employers were in a position where they could employ a "take it or leave it" attitude regarding such critical issues as working conditions and hours on the job. As such, it is incumbent upon the State to exercise its police powers in order to care for its citizens.

This is the mantle under which changes were sought by urban reformers. Journalist Edward Marshall noticed the squalor of New York City's cellar bakeries while serving on the Tenement House Committee in 1894. He wrote an editorial in the New York Press that teed off a crusade to clean up the baking industry and improve the conditions of employment. He was able to convince his fellow reformers that the problems of the baking industry and general social reform were inextricably interconnected. Henry Weismann, leader of the Bakers' Union, took the opportunity that Marshall created to get his union to back the proposed reform law. Together, Weismann and Marshall were able to push the bakeshop regulation through the state legislature, ending in the unanimous passing of the Bakeshop Act by both houses of the New York State Legislature in 1895 (Paul).

As a result of the passing of the law, bakeshop owners, or boss bakers, such as Joseph Locher endured a reduction in the already small margin of profit they were turning in their businesses. Most boss bakers employed fewer than five workers, so in order to produce enough product to be profitable each worker had to be on the job for hours that soared into the triple digits. The argument presented by Lochner's defense team, which was ironically led by the same Henry Weismann who helped champion the passing of the Bakeshop Act in the first place, was that the act was an infringement of the Fourteenth Amendment right of boss bakers to life, liberty, or property. Both sides of the case argued their positions based upon interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment, not based upon the actual literal wording encased therein (Paul).

Under a theory called "substantive due process," courts assumed the power to examine, not only the enforcement of laws through correct judicial procedure, but also the power to examine the content of legislation as well as the means by which it was enforced. Substantive due process is the theory that was used to successfully overrule attempts by the state to regulate railroads. On the other side of the argument, Lochner's defense used a right known as "liberty of contract," saying that this right, which is not written into the Constitution, was being infringed by the Bakeshop Act (Paul).

The issue of this case that is still critically vilified is the position of the Court to be an activist in legal matters. The most famous argument against the Supreme Court decision in the Lochner case… [END OF PREVIEW]

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