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Lochner v. New York

Matthew Steinberg

InstructorMatthew Steinberg

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Lochner v. New York

Citation. 22 Ill.198 U.S. 45, 25 S. Ct. 539, 49 L. Ed. 937 (1905)
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Brief Fact Summary.

A New York labor law required employees to work no more than sixty hours in one week.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The 1897 Labor Law limiting the hours that an employee in a biscuit, bread, or cake bakery or confectionery establishment may work is an abridgement to their liberty of contract and a violation of due process.


The 1897 Labor Law stated that no employee can be required or permitted to work in a biscuit, bread, or cake bakery or confectionery establishment more than sixty hours in a week or more than ten hours in one day, unless to make work on the last day of the week shorter. And the number of hours worked in a week could not average out to be more than ten hours per day.


Does the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment protect liberty of contract and private property against unwarranted government interference?


Justice Peckham opinion. This law is an abridgment to the liberty of contract and a violation of due process.  The general right to make a contract in relation to his business is part of the “liberty” of the individual protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. No state can deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. The right to purchase or sell labor is part of that liberty protected. The only way a state may counter this right is to show they are exercising a valid police power with their regulation. Those powers relate to the safety, health, morals and general welfare of the public.

The Court rejected the labor law justification of the statute on police power grounds because this was not a valid exercise of police power.

First, that power is extended to the protection of “public welfare” and not the readjustment of bargaining power between employees and employers. The effect of this legislation was to regulate labor conditions and not to protect workers. The effect of such statutes, not just the stated or proclaimed purpose, is determinative in whether this statute is repugnant to the United States Constitution.

Second, there is no valid health of safety rationale in this case. Bakers were not endangered like miners were in the Holden v. Hardy case. Mining is a profession that needed regulation, but this is not. The state could accomplish its goals with means that did not interfere with the freedom to contract. Because the police power exercised here is not strong, the Court suspected that there were legislative motives behind the enactment of this law. New York was using its power to upset the free market.


Justices Holmes, Harlan, White and Day dissenting.

J. Holmes: States may regulate life in many ways which might seem injudicious or tyrannical and which may interfere with the liberty to contract. Sunday laws and usury laws are examples. Liberty of a citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, has been interfered with by school laws, the Post Office, every state or city which takes his money in taxes for purposes thought desirable which he may or may not like. The states have interfered with the liberty to contract with the prohibition of sales of stock on margins for future delivery and the eight-hour law for miners.

J. Holmes: A Constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory. Finding certain opinions natural and familiar or novel ought not to determine whether the statutes conflict with the Constitution. The word “liberty” in the Fourteenth Amendment is improperly construed when it is held to prevent the natural outcome of a dominant opinion, unless it can be said that a rational and fair man necessarily would admit that the statute proposed would infringe fundamental traditions, which have been understood by the traditions of our people and law.

J. Harlan: If a state is to interfere with the right to contract, it may do so only if the regulation involves a state’s police power to protect the health of its citizens. The Court should not be concerned with the policy of legislation. The only question is whether the means devised by the state are germane to a valid end.


In 1917, without mentioning its opinion in Lochner, the Court upheld a law, which provided for a maximum ten-hour day for factory workers of both genders and regulated overtime pay. Bunting v. Oregon.

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