Justice Rufus Wheeler Peckham

Justice Rufus Wheeler Peckham joined the U.S. Supreme Court on January 6, 1896, replacing Justice Howell Edmunds Jackson. Peckham was born on November 8, 1838 in Albany, New York. He did not attend university, although he eventually received honorary degrees from Yale and Columbia Universities. Peckham was admitted to the New York bar in 1859 and then entered private practice at his father’s law firm. Between 1869 and 1872, he served as District Attorney for the City and County of Albany, while also working as a special assistant to the New York State Attorney General.

In 1883, Peckham began his judicial career by winning election to the New York Supreme Court, a state-level trial court. Three years later, he was elected to the New York Court of Appeals, which is the highest court in New York State. Peckham stayed on the Court of Appeals for nearly a decade, writing several influential decisions.

On December 3, 1895, President Grover Cleveland nominated Peckham to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on December 9, and he took the judicial oath about a month later. Peckham had cultivated friendships with many titans of industry, such as J. Pierpont Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, so he might have been expected to favor big business on the Court. To the contrary, he ruled against corporations in multiple antitrust cases.

However, Peckham is probably best known for writing the majority opinion in Lochner v. New York, a 1905 decision in which the Court struck down a law limiting working hours for bakers. The case gave its name to the Lochner era, during which the Court frequently invalidated economic regulations based on due process principles, such as the freedom to contract. Although the Court has never explicitly overruled Lochner, it abandoned the principles for which it stands in the 1930s.

Peckham died on October 24, 1909 in a small town west of Albany. Justice Horace Harmon Lurton replaced him on the Supreme Court.

Selected Opinions by Justice Peckham:

Ex Parte Young (1908)

Topic: Role of Courts

While courts cannot control the exercise of the discretion of an executive officer, an injunction preventing the officer from enforcing an unconstitutional statute is not an interference with their discretion.

Lochner v. New York (1905)

Topic: Due Process; Labor & Employment

The general right to make a contract in relation to one's 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.

Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897)

Topic: Due Process

In the privilege of pursuing an ordinary calling or trade, and of acquiring, holding, and selling property, must be embraced the right to make all proper contracts in relation to it.