Muller v. Oregon
208 U.S. 412 (1908)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908)

Muller v. Oregon

No. 107

Argued January 15, 1908

Decided February 24, 1908

208 U.S. 412

Syllabus

The peculiar value of a written constitution is that it places, in unchanging form, limitations upon legislative action, questions relating to which are not settled by even a consensus of public opinion; but when the extent of one of those limitations is affected by a question of fact which is debatable and debated, a widespread and long continued belief concerning that fact is worthy of consideration.

This Court takes judicial cognizance of all matters of general knowledge -- such as the fact that woman's physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage which justifies a difference in legislation in regard to some of the burdens which rest upon her.

As healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical wellbeing of woman is an object of public interest. The regulation of her hour of labor falls within the police power of the State, and a statute directed exclusively to such regulation does not conflict with the due process or equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The right of a State to regulate the working hours of women rests on the police power and the right to preserve the health of the women of the State, and is not affected by other laws of the State granting or denying to women the same rights as to contract and the elective franchise as are enjoyed by men.

While the general liberty to contract in regard to one's business and the sale of one's labor is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, that liberty is subject to proper restrictions under the police power of the State.

The statute of Oregon of 1903 providing that no female shall work in certain establishments more than ten hour a day is not unconstitutional so far as respects laundries.

48 Oregon, 252, affirmed.

The facts, which involve the constitutionality of the statute

Page 208 U. S. 413

of Oregon limiting the hours of employment of women, are stated in the opinion.

Page 208 U. S. 416

Primary Holding
Since the state has a compelling interest in protecting the health of women, the Fourteenth Amendment does not prevent it from restricting their working hours.
Facts
Oregon imposed a law that prohibited businesses from making female employees work shifts of longer than 10 hours. The owner of a laundry business, Curt Muller, was fined $10 when he violated the law. Despite the small penalty, Muller appealed the conviction. The state supreme court upheld the law's constitutionality.

Procedural History

Oregon Supreme Court - 85 P. 855 (Or. 1906)

Restricting the working hours of women is based on the legitimate state interest of protecting their health and thus does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

Opinions

Majority

  • David Josiah Brewer (Author)
  • Melville Weston Fuller
  • John Marshall Harlan
  • Edward Douglass White
  • Rufus Wheeler Peckham
  • Joseph McKenna
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
  • William Rufus Day
  • William Henry Moody

This was a unanimous opinion in favor of the state's power to regulate businesses. Its reasoning was based on somewhat anachronistic and paternalistic notions that the child-bearing role and physical frailty of women allowed the state to take measures to protect them.

Case Commentary

The Supreme Court reached a decision that was different from its traditional jurisprudence on the freedom to contract by relying on traditional visions of women in society. They were portrayed in this paternalistic rhetoric as a group that needed special protection because of their reliance on men and physical weaknesses, as well as some implicitly mental weaknesses that rendered them less able to enter into contracts.

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