12 HISTORIC SUPREME COURT DECISIONS A C-SPAN ORIGINAL TV SERIES
Summary
Case Decided:
April 17, 1905

Lochner v. New York (1905) is the namesake case of the “Lochner Era,” in which the Court struck down many state and federal regulations on working conditions. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that a New York law limiting the number of hours a baker could work violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guaranteed “liberty of contract.”

New York passed the Bakeshop Act in 1895 to improve sanitation and limit bakery employees to a sixty-hour work week. Bakery owner Joseph Lochner ran afoul of the law when his employee worked longer hours than legally permitted. After appeals to New York courts, Lochner took his case to the Supreme Court, which found that the Bakeshop Act infringed on his right to enter into a contract with his worker. In a 5-4 decision overturning the law, the Court recognized a “freedom of contract,” finding the act outside the police powers of the state. By the 1930s the Court began to reject “substantive due process” for economic regulations, but it became the basis for protecting personal rights like privacy in the 1960s.

Key Players
Joseph Lochner

Joseph Lochner was a Bavarian immigrant who opened Lochner’s Home Bakery in Utica, New York. He challenged his conviction and fine under a New York labor law for allowing an employee to work more than sixty hours per week.

Justice Rufus Peckham

Rufus Peckham (November 8, 1838 – October 24, 1909) was the Supreme Court justice (1895 – 1909) who wrote the majority opinion in Lochner. He studied law under his father and rose to prominence as a successful New York lawyer and judge. Peckham was a strong proponent of the individual’s right to freedom of contract as part of a general right to liberty.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (March 8, 1841 – March 6, 1935) was a Supreme Court justice (1902 – 1932) who wrote a very pointed dissent in Lochner. He argued in his dissent that the Constitution did not embody a particular economic theory.

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