Adkins v. Children's Hosp.,
261 U.S. 525 (1923)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Adkins v. Children's Hosp., 261 U.S. 525 (1923)

Adkins v. Children's Hospital

Nos. 795, 796

Argued March 14, 1923

Decided April 9, 1923

261 U.S. 525


1. The Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, while constituted of two of the three Justices of that court and one Justice of the Supreme Court of the District, affirmed decrees of the latter court dismissing bills; thereafter, at the same term, (the Supreme Court Justice having been replaced by the third Justice of the Court of Appeals) it granted rehearings and reversed the decrees, and, thereafter, on second appeals, it affirmed decrees entered pursuant to the reversals. Held that objections to the jurisdiction to grant the rehearings did not go to the jurisdiction over the second appeals, and need not be decided here upon review of the decrees of affirmance. P. 261 U. S. 543.

2. Every possible presumption stands in favor of an act of Congress until overcome beyond rational doubt. P. 261 U. S. 544.

3. But when, in the exercise of the judicial authority to ascertain and declare the law in a given case, it is clear and indubitable that an act of Congress conflicts with the Constitution, it is the duty of the Court so to declare, and to enforce the Constitution. Id.

4. This is not to exercise a power to review and nullify an act of Congress, for no such power exists; it is simply a necessary concomitant of the power to hear and dispose of a case or controversy properly before the court, to the determination of which must be brought the test and measure of the law. Id.

5. That the right to contract about one's affairs is part of the liberty of the individual protected by the Fifth Amendment, is settled by repeated decisions of this Court. P. 261 U. S. 545.

6. Within this liberty are contracts of employment of labor. In making these, generally speaking, the parties have equal right to obtain from each other the best terms they can by private bargaining. Id.

Page 261 U. S. 526

7. Legislative abridgment of this freedom can only be justified by the existence of exceptional circumstances. P. 261 U. S. 546.

8. Review of former decisions concerning interferences with liberty of contract, by

(a) Statutes fixing the rates and charges of businesses affected by a public interest. P. 261 U. S. 546.

(b) Statutes relating to the performance of contracts for public work. P. 261 U. S. 547.

(c) Statutes prescribing the character, methods and time for payment of wages. Id.

(d) Statutes fixing hours of labor. Id.

9. Legislation fixing hours or conditions of work may properly take into account the physical differences between men and women; but, in view of the equality of legal status, now established in this country, the doctrine that women of mature age require, or may be subjected to, restrictions upon their liberty of contract which could not lawfully be imposed on men in similar circumstances, must be rejected. P. 261 U. S. 552.

10. The limited legislative authority to regulate hours of labor in special occupations, on the ground of health, affords no support to a wage-fixing law -- the two subjects are essentially different. P. 261 U. S. 553.

11. The Minimum Wage Act of Sept.19, 1918, c. 174, 40 Stat. 960, in assuming to authorize the fixing of minimum wage standards for adult women, in any occupation in the District of Columbia, such standards to be based wholly upon what a board and its advisers may find to be an adequate wage to meet the necessary cost of living for women workers in each particular calling and to maintain them in good health and protect their morals, is an unconstitutional interference with the liberty of contract. P. 261 U. S. 554.

284 Fed. 613, affirmed.

APPEALS from decrees of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, affirming two decrees, entered, on mandate from that court, by the Supreme Court of the District, permanently enjoining the appellants from enforcing orders fixing minimum wages under the District of Columbia Minimum Wage Act.

Page 261 U. S. 539

Primary Holding

It is an unconstitutional violation of due process for a law to mandate a minimum wage for working women.


The District of Columbia Children's Hospital employed many women. It argued that Congress had violated the Fifth Amendment when it set minimum wages for women and children in the District of Columbia. The hospital sought an injunction against enforcing the law, which was denied in the trial court but granted in the intermediate appellate court.



  • George Sutherland (Author)
  • Joseph McKenna
  • Willis Van Devanter
  • James Clark McReynolds
  • Pierce Butler

The freedom of contract is supported by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. There may be exceptions to this right in unusual circumstances, but in general parties should be able to seek the most advantageous terms for them when they are negotiating an employment contract. The Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and other reforms have started to dissolve the gap between the sexes, so there are no exceptional circumstances present here. Women do not merit greater protection than men, and it is implausible to suggest that the lack of a minimum wage would encourage women to engage in immoral behavior because there is no evidence that higher-earning women act more morally than lower-earning women.

The law also failed to consider the interests of the employer in its effort to protect employees. Employers should not be required to pay an arbitrary amount that is unrelated to their business type or needs.


  • William Howard Taft (Author)
  • Edward Terry Sanford


  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Author)


  • Louis Dembitz Brandeis (Author)

Case Commentary

Changing attitudes to working women emerged from this decision, which reveals an understanding that women have the same ability as men to enter into contracts. The harm to businesses caused by imposing a minimum wage appeared to be the key factor in this case, although a more modern court would not have agreed.

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