Lochner v. New York,
198 U.S. 45 (1905)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905)

Lochner v. New York

No. 292

Argued February 23, 24, 1905

Decided April 17, 1906

198 U.S. 45


The general right to make a contract in relation to his business is part of the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and this includes the right to purchase and sell labor, except as controlled by the State in the legitimate exercise of its police power.

Liberty of contract relating to labor includes both parties to it; the one has as much right to purchase as the other to sell labor.

There is no reasonable ground, on the score of health, for interfering with the liberty of the person or the right of free contract, by determining the hours of labor, in the occupation of a baker. Nor can a law limiting such hours be justified a a health law to safeguard the public health, or the health of the individuals following that occupation.

Section 110 of the labor law of the State of New York, providing that no employes shall be required or permitted to work in bakeries more than sixty hours in a week, or ten hours a day, is not a legitimate exercise of the police power of the State, but an unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract in relation to labor, and, as such, it is in conflict with, and void under, the Federal Constitution.

This is a writ of error to the County Court of Oneida County, in the State of New York (to which court the record had been remitted), to review the judgment of the Court of Appeal of that State affirming the judgment of the Supreme Court, which itself affirmed the judgment of the County Court, convicting the defendant of a misdemeanor on an indictment under a statute of that State, known, by its short title, as the labor

Page 198 U. S. 46

law. The section of the statute under which the indictment was found is section 110, and is reproduced in the margin, * (together with the other sections of the labor law upon the subject of bakeries, being sections 111 to 115, both inclusive). The indictment averred that the defendant

"wrongfully and unlawfully required and permitted an employee working for him in his biscuit, bread and cake bakery and confectionery establishment, at the city of Utica, in this county, to work more than sixty hours in one week,"

after having been theretofore convicted of a violation of the same act, and therefore, as averred, he committed the crime or misdemeanor, second offense. The plaintiff in error demurred to the indictment on several grounds, one of which was that the facts stated did not

Page 198 U. S. 47

constitute a crime. The demurrer was overruled, and the plaintiff in error having refused to plead further, a plea of not guilty was entered by order of the court and the trial commenced, and he was convicted of misdemeanor, second offense, as indicted, and sentenced to pay a fine of $50 and to stand committed until paid, not to exceed fifty days in the Oneida County jail. A certificate of reasonable doubt was granted by the county judge of Oneida County, whereon an appeal was taken to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, Fourth Department, where the judgment of conviction was affirmed. 73 App.Div.N.Y. 120. A further appeal was then taken to the Court of Appeals, where the judgment of conviction was again affirmed. 177 N.Y. 145.

Page 198 U. S. 52

Primary Holding

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the individual right to freedom of contract.


The owner of a bakery in the New York city of Utica, Joseph Lochner, was charged with violating a state law known as the Bakeshop Act. This law set maximum hour requirements for bakery employees at 10 hours per day and 60 hours per week, in addition to regulating sanitary conditions. While its provisions appeared benign, they may have resulted from anti-immigrant sentiment in the industry, since foreign-born bakers who were willing to work longer hours were seen as a threat to American bakers. Lochner was accused of permitting an employee to work more than 60 hours in one week.

The first charge resulted in a fine of $25, and a second charge a few years later resulted in a fine of $50. Although Lochner did not challenge the first conviction, he appealed the second but was denied in state courts by narrow decisions. He argued that the Fourteenth Amendment should be interpreted to contain the freedom to contract among the rights encompassed by substantive due process.

Procedural History

Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court - 76 N.Y.S. 396 (N.Y. App. Div. 1902)

Conviction affirmed. The law setting maximum hours on bakery employees does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

New York Court of Appeals - 69 N.E. 373 (N.Y. 1904)

Conviction affirmed. The provision on maximum hours is not an unconstitutional limitation on the freedom to contract.


  • Henry Weismann (defendant)



  • Rufus Wheeler Peckham (Author)
  • Melville Weston Fuller
  • David Josiah Brewer
  • Henry Billings Brown
  • Joseph McKenna

At the core of this case lay the conflict between the individual right to contract and the police powers of the state. Peckham found that neither interest was absolute but seemed to disfavor the state's assertion of authority. He argued that the government does not have the power to protect individuals from the consequences of their own poor decisions, unless they are wards of the state. But he also pointed out that these decisions might not be as ill-advised as the state thought in enacting the law. In Peckham's view, longer working hours did not dramatically undermine the health of employees, and this profession is not particularly dangerous.

As a result, the majority opinion held that the New York law failed the rational basis test for determining whether government action was constitutional. Peckham wrote that the Bakeshop Act was not related in any real way to health.


  • John Marshall Harlan (Author)
  • Edward Douglass White
  • William Rufus Day

Offering a broader interpretation of the state authority to regulate under its police powers, Harlan articulated reasoning that would inform later decisions in the post-Lochner era. His deferential application of the rational basis standard more closely resembles the current way that the Court applies it. Rather than requiring the government to prove that a law met this test, he would require the party challenging the law to prove that the test was not met. (This is also the current rule.)

Harlan cited many studies that conflicted with the majority's view on the impact of long working hours on the health of bakers, pointing out that plenty of evidence existed to support the legislature's conclusions. He found that the government was entitled to use means that might not be the best in the situation, as long as they fall within the government's police powers and are not illegal.


  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Author)

In an eloquent companion to Harlan's dissent, Holmes based his opinion on what he saw as excessive judicial activism that interfered with the legislative role. He also argued that judges do not have the economic knowledge to make decisions in this area, and he used historical evidence in rejecting the notion that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the freedom to contract.

Case Commentary

Among the most controversial and criticized decisions in Supreme Court history, Lochner lasted only a few decades before the Supreme Court implicitly repudiated its viewpoint. It limited the police powers of states during the Great Depression and the early New Deal, but the 1934 decision in Nebbia v. New York and the 1937 decision in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish abandoned the notion that the Fourteenth Amendment protects a freedom to contract. This is no longer considered one of the fundamental rights under the Constitution. Moreover, the dissents' lenient vision of the rational basis test has become the standard by which courts evaluate most economic legislation, in contrast to the higher level of scrutiny used for state action that affects personal liberties. On the other hand, the concept of substantive due process survived and remains at the core of Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence.

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