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"Lochner" redirects here. For other uses, see Lochner (disambiguation).
Lochner v. New York
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued February 23–24, 1905
Decided April 17, 1905
Full case name Joseph Lochner, Plaintiff in Error v. People of the State of New York
Citations 198 U.S. 45 (more)
25 S. Ct. 539; 49 L. Ed. 937; 1905 U.S. LEXIS 1153
Prior history Defendant convicted, Oneida County Court, New York, February 12, 1902; affirmed, 76 N.Y.S. 396 (N.Y. App. Div. 1902); affirmed, 69 N.E. 373 (N.Y. 1904)
Subsequent history None
New York's regulation of the working hours of bakers was not a justifiable restriction on the right to contract freely under the 14th Amendment's guarantee of liberty.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Peckham, joined by Fuller, Brewer, Brown, McKenna
Dissent Harlan, joined by White, Day
Dissent Holmes
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV; 1897 N.Y. Laws art. 8, ch. 415, § 110

Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that held that "liberty of contract" was implicit in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case involved a New York law that limited the number of hours that a baker could work each day to ten, and limited the number of hours that a baker could work each week to 60. By a 5–4 vote, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the law was necessary to protect the health of bakers, deciding it was a labor law attempting to regulate the terms of employment, and calling it an "unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract."

Lochner is one of the most controversial decisions in the Supreme Court's history, giving its name to what is known as the Lochner era. In the Lochner era, the Supreme Court issued several controversial decisions invalidating federal and state statutes that sought to regulate working conditions during the Progressive Era and the Great Depression.

During the quarter-century that followed Lochner, the Supreme Court also began to use the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect rights like freedom of speech and the right to send one's child to private school (which was the beginning of the line of cases that found a right to privacy in the Constitution). The Lochner era ended with West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937), in which the Supreme Court took an expansive view of the government's power to regulate commercial activities.


In 1895, the New York Legislature unanimously enacted the Bakeshop Act, which regulated sanitary conditions in bakeries and also prohibited individuals from working in bakeries for more than ten hours per day or sixty hours per week.

In 1899, Joseph Lochner, owner of Lochner's Home Bakery in Utica, was indicted on a charge that he violated the Section 110 of Article 8, Chapter 415, of the Laws of 1897, in that he wrongfully and unlawfully permitted an employee working for him to work more than sixty hours in one week. Lochner was fined $25. For a second offense in 1901, Lochner drew a fine of $50 from the Oneida County Court.

Lochner chose to appeal his second conviction. However, the conviction was upheld by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court in a 3–2 vote. Lochner appealed again to the New York Court of Appeals, where he lost by a 4-3 margin. After his defeat in the Court of Appeals (New York's highest court), Lochner took his case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Lochner's appeal was based on the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which provides: "... nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." In a series of cases starting with Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the Supreme Court established that the Due Process Clause (found in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments) is not merely a procedural guarantee, but also a substantive limitation on the type of control the government may exercise over individuals. Although this interpretation of the Due Process Clause is a controversial one (see substantive due process), it had become firmly embedded in American jurisprudence by the end of the 19th century. Lochner argued that the right to freely contract was one of the rights encompassed by substantive due process.

Scholars have noted that when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868, 27 out of 37 state constitutions had Lockean Provisos, which typically said: "All men are by nature free and independent, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring and possessing and protecting property: and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness." As such clauses were "deeply rooted in American history and tradition," they likely informed the original meaning of the scope and nature of the fundamental rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment in the eyes of Lochner-era justices.[1]

The Supreme Court had accepted the argument that the due process clause protected the right to contract seven years earlier, in Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897). However, the Court had acknowledged that the right was not absolute, but subject to the "police power" of the states. For example, in Holden v. Hardy (1898), the Supreme Court upheld a Utah law setting an eight-hour work day for miners. In Holden, Justice Henry Brown wrote that while "the police power cannot be put forward as an excuse for oppressive and unjust legislation, it may be lawfully resorted to for the purpose of preserving the public health, safety, or morals." The issue facing the Supreme Court in Lochner v. New York was whether the Bakeshop Act represented a reasonable exercise of the state's police power.

Lochner's case was argued by Henry Weismann (who had been one of the foremost advocates of the Bakeshop Act when he was Secretary of the Journeymen Bakers' Union). In his brief, Weismann decried the idea that "the treasured freedom of the individual ... should be swept away under the guise of the police power of the State." He denied New York's argument that the Bakeshop Act was a necessary health measure, claiming that the "average bakery of the present day is well ventilated, comfortable both summer and winter, and always sweet smelling." Weismann's brief contained an appendix providing statistics showing that bakers' mortality rates were comparable to that of white collar professionals.


The Supreme Court, by a vote of 5–4, ruled that the law limiting bakers' working hours did not constitute a legitimate exercise of state police powers, and it was unconstitutional, using an argument that people should have freedom of contract, and that unequal bargaining power was irrelevant. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Justice Rufus Peckham.

Harlan's dissent[edit]

Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices White and Day. Justice Harlan contended that the liberty to contract is subject to regulation imposed by a state acting within the scope of its police powers. Justice Harlan offered the following rule for determining whether such statutes are unconstitutional:

Justice Harlan asserted that the burden of proof should rest with the party seeking to have such a statute deemed unconstitutional.

Justice Harlan's dissent argued that the Court gave insufficient weight to the state's argument that the law was a valid health measure addressing a legitimate state interest. Justice Harlan contended that it was "plain that this statute was enacted to protect the physical well-being of those who work in bakery and confectionery establishments." Responding to the majority's assertion that the profession of a baker was not an unhealthy one, he quoted at length from academic studies describing the respiratory ailments and other risks that bakers faced. He argued that the Supreme Court should have deferred to the New York Legislature's judgment that long working hours threatened the health of bakery employees. According to Harlan, "If the end which the legislature seeks to accomplish be one to which its power extends, and if the means employed to that end, although not the wisest or best, are yet not plainly and palpably unauthorized by law, then the court cannot interfere."

Holmes' dissent[edit]

Another dissenting opinion was penned by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.. Although only three paragraphs long, Holmes' dissent is well remembered and often quoted. Holmes accused the majority of judicial activism, pointedly claiming that the case was "decided upon an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain." He attacked the idea that the Fourteenth Amendment enshrined the liberty of contract, citing laws against Sunday trading and usury as "ancient examples" to the contrary. Justice Holmes wrote: "[t]he Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics." This was a reference to a book in which Spencer advocated a strict laissez faire philosophy. With reference to the economic regulations at issue, Holmes wrote, "Some of these laws embody convictions or prejudices which judges are likely to share. Some may not. But a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory."

Significance and legacy[edit]

Main article: Lochner era

"The case is famous because there is virtually universal agreement among judges and scholars that it was incorrectly decided. More important, it is the case in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the most influential dissenting opinion in the Court's history."

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, writing in 2011.[2]

The Supreme Court's due process jurisprudence over the next three decades was inconsistent, but it took a narrow view of states' police powers in several major labor cases after Lochner. For example, in Coppage v. Kansas (1915), the Court struck down statutes forbidding "Yellow Dog contracts." Similarly, in Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923), the Supreme Court held that minimum wage laws violated the due process clause (although Chief Justice William Howard Taft strongly dissented, suggesting that the Court instead should have overruled Lochner). The doctrine of substantive due process was coupled with a narrow interpretation of congressional power under the commerce clause. Justices James McReynolds, George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter, and Pierce Butler emerged during the 1920s and 1930s as the foremost defenders of traditional limitations on government power on the Supreme Court; they were collectively dubbed by partisans of the New Deal the "Four Horsemen of Reaction" as a result. All of this was esconced in a theory of Laissez faire economics.

In 1934, the Supreme Court decided Nebbia v. New York stating that there is no constitutionally protected fundamental right to freedom of contract. In 1937, the Supreme Court decided West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, which expressly overruled Adkins and implicitly signaled the end of the Lochner era. The decision repudiated the idea that freedom of contract should be unrestricted:

Although the Supreme Court did not explicitly overrule Lochner, it did agree to give more deference to the decisions of state legislatures. The Court sounded the death knell for economic substantive due process several years later in Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma (1955). In that case, a unanimous Supreme Court declared: "The day is gone when this Court uses the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down state laws, regulatory of business and industrial conditions, because they may be unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought."

Coming at a time of mounting political pressure over the judiciary's stance toward the New Deal, the Court's shift is sometimes called “The switch in time that saved nine.”

Modern substantive due process[edit]

In the post-Lochner era, the Supreme Court has applied a lower standard of review (rational basis test) when confronting restrictions on economic liberty, but a higher standard in reviewing legislation impinging on personal liberties, especially the right to privacy. A line of cases dating back to the 1923 opinion by Justice McReynolds in Meyer v. Nebraska (citing Lochner as establishing limits on the police power) has established a privacy right under substantive due process. More recently, in Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court held that women have a privacy right to determine whether or not to have an abortion. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey reaffirmed that right, though the Court no longer used the term "privacy" to describe it.

Scholarly reaction[edit]

The Supreme Court's decision in Lochner v. New York has been criticized by legal scholars. Law professor Bernard Siegan described it as "one of the most condemned cases in United States history." [4] According to the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, law professors often use Lochner, along with Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu v. United States, as examples of "how judges should not behave."[5]

Lochner is sometimes used as shorthand for extreme right wing constitutional theory.[6] However, it has come under harsh criticism from conservative and libertarian jurists as well, due to the Lochner Court's embrace of substantive due process, a doctrine at odds with the original understanding of the Constitution. For example, conservative legal scholar Robert Bork called the decision an "abomination" and the "quintessence of judicial usurpation of power."[7][8] Similarly, former Attorney General Edwin Meese said that the Supreme Court "ignored the limitations of the Constitution and blatantly usurped legislative authority."[9] Siegan, a self-described libertarian, described it as "a symbol of judicial dereliction and abuse."[4]

However, the decision also has attracted defenders, including the libertarian Cato Institute, and scholars Richard Epstein and Randy Barnett, who argue that Lochner was correct in its protection of economic liberty.[10][11] Randy Barnett has argued that Lochner's presumption in favor of liberty of contract was basically right; the decision was wrong only insofar as it perpetuated the misinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment established in the Slaughter-House Cases. According to Barnett, liberty of contract is properly found in the Privileges or Immunities Clause, not in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[12] David Bernstein, in Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform, argues that the decision in Lochner was well-grounded in Supreme Court precedent and that the decision's emphasis on limits to the states' police powers informed the Court's early civil liberties and civil rights cases.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Calabresi, Steven G.; Agudo, Sarah (2008). "Individual Rights Under State Constitutions When the Fourteenth Amendment Was Ratified in 1868: What Rights Are Deeply Rooted in American History and Tradition?". Tex. L. Rev. 87 (7): 88. 
  2. ^ Stevens, John Paul (2011). Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir. Little, Brown and Company. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-316-19980-3. .
  3. ^ "West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish". Law.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2011-02-01. 
  4. ^ a b Siegan, Bernard H. (1980). Economic Liberties and the Constitution. Univ of Chicago Pr. p. 23. ISBN 978-0226756639. , cited in Stone, Geoffrey R; et al. (2009). Constitutional Law (6th ed.). Aspen Publishers. p. 744. ISBN 978-0735577190. 
  5. ^ Millhiser, Ian. Rand Paul praises horrendous Supreme Court decision, would let employers ruthlessly exploit workers. ThinkProgress, 2013-03-07.
  6. ^ Ian Millhiser described as "Worse Than Lochner" constitutional interpretation that would hold unconstitutional all "affirmative action" policies as well as Social Security, Medicare, and Pell Grants. Millhiser, Ian (June 2011). "Worse Than Lochner". Yale Law & Policy Review 29. 
  7. ^ Bork, Robert H. (1989). The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law. Free Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0029037614. 
  8. ^ Bork, Robert H. (2003). "The Judge's Role in Law and Culture" (PDF). Ave Maria Law Review 1: 19, 21. 
  9. ^ http://www.communityrights.org/Newsroom/crcInTheNews/WP9-19-03.asp[dead link]
  10. ^ "Exposing Global-Warming Alarmism's Grasp". Cato Institute. May–June 2011. 
  11. ^ Epstein, Richard A. (2003). "The 'Necessary' History of Property and Liberty". Chapman Law Review 6. 
  12. ^ Barnett, Randy E. "Foreword: What's So Wicked About Lochner?". NYU Journal of Law & Liberty 1 (1): 1–9. 
  13. ^ Bernstein, David E. (2011). Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform. University of Chicago Press. 


  • Bernstein, David E. (2012). Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights against Progressive Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-04353-3. 
  • Bernstein, David E. (2005). "Lochner v. New York: A Centennial Retrospective". Washington University Law Quarterly 85 (5): 1469–1528. .
  • Hall, Kermit; et al. (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195058356. .
  • Kens, Paul (1998). Lochner v. New York: Economic Regulation on Trial. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0155068674. .
  • Tushnet, Mark (2008). I dissent: Great Opposing Opinions in Landmark Supreme Court Cases. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 81–92. ISBN 978-0-8070-0036-6. .
  • Warren, Charles (1924), The Supreme Court in United States History, (3 volumes), Boston: Little, Brown and Co., LCCN 25006510 

External links[edit]

  • Text of Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia  LII 

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In my most recent essay for the JOTWELL website, which reviews important new legal scholarship, I analyze Thomas Colby and Peter Smith's excellent recent article “The Return of Lochner.” Here's an excerpt: Lochner v. New York (1905) has long been one ...

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Fri, 20 Nov 2015 05:57:38 -0800

Sandford, the 1857 "Dred Scott" decision holding that people of African descent were not U.S. citizens; Lochner v. New York, the 1905 case in which the court struck down a state law governing baking hours by recognizing a "freedom to contract"; and ...
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Wed, 15 Apr 2015 10:43:26 -0700

Friday marks the 110th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Lochner v. New York. Lochner held that a New York State law that restricted the working hours in bakeries to ten hours a day was unconstitutional as a violation of the right ...

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Fri, 13 Nov 2015 01:45:00 -0800

Oregon .In 1905, the Supreme Court decided in Lochner v. New York that state laws which regulate economic activities, like minimum wage and maximum hours laws, violate the substantive economic due process rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

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Fri, 17 Apr 2015 06:30:00 -0700

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