• Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Muller v. Oregon, the U.S. Supreme Court established the validity of “sociological jurisprudence,” the principle that economic and social considerations are as significant as legal precedents in deciding the constitutionality of social legislation.

Summary of Event

In his famous brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Muller v. Oregon in 1908, Louis D. Brandeis of Boston established the validity of “sociological jurisprudence” in the determination of constitutional questions. According to sociological jurisprudence, economic and social considerations are as significant as legal precedents in judicial decision making concerning the constitutionality of social legislation. In Muller v. Oregon, Brandeis (who later served on the Supreme Court himself) presented a brief that became a legal model for lawyers, judges, and social welfare proponents who were determined to humanize industrial working conditions. Muller v. Oregon (1908) Brandeis brief Supreme Court, U.S.;sociological jurisprudence Sociological jurisprudence Women;labor issues [kw]Muller v. Oregon (Feb. 24, 1908) [kw]Oregon, Muller v. (Feb. 24, 1908) Muller v. Oregon (1908) Brandeis brief Supreme Court, U.S.;sociological jurisprudence Sociological jurisprudence Women;labor issues [g]United States;Feb. 24, 1908: Muller v. Oregon[02100] [c]Business and labor;Feb. 24, 1908: Muller v. Oregon[02100] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Feb. 24, 1908: Muller v. Oregon[02100] [c]Women’s issues;Feb. 24, 1908: Muller v. Oregon[02100] Brandeis, Louis D. Brewer, David J. Goldmark, Josephine Kelley, Florence

Under attack was an Oregon law that limited a workday for women workers in an industry to ten hours. The law’s critics claimed that it was unconstitutional because it contradicted legal precedent as established by the case of Lochner v. New York (1905). Lochner v. New York (1905) Because many members of the bar and the judiciary were hostile toward social welfare legislation, it was expected that the courts would uphold the claim of unconstitutionality. Many, if not most, lawyers and judges at the beginning of the twentieth century believed in natural economic laws and the primacy of property rights over human rights. For the government to attempt to control the use of property, they maintained, was not only unconstitutional but also contrary to the natural order.

Judges in the United States are entitled to review legislation to determine whether it violates state or federal constitutions; as a result, advocates of social welfare legislation viewed the decisions of judges who opposed such legislation as the greatest threat to progress. Federal courts had frequently nullified social welfare legislation enacted by the states. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court had embraced the concept that corporations had the status of persons under the Fourteenth Amendment. No state, the Court held, could deprive a corporation—in this case, a particular industry—of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. In social welfare legislation, “liberty” generally meant the freedom to contract.

In 1905, the Supreme Court set specific limitations on how far a state could go in legislating hours and other working conditions for its industrial laborers. In Lochner v. New York, the Court ruled that New York laws that limited bakers to working ten hours per day and sixty hours per week were “mere meddlesome interferences with the rights of the individual.” A state could not interfere with the freedom of the employer and employee to make a labor contract unless obvious and overriding reasons existed, such as matters of health. The Court asserted that if the state had been able to prove that longer hours had negative health effects on the workers, the Court would have upheld the statute.

The stage was thus set for litigation of the Oregon ten-hour law for women. Two social justice reformers, Florence Kelley, who was chief factory inspector of Illinois and general secretary of the National Consumers League, and Josephine Goldmark, a leader of the National Consumers League and Brandeis’s sister-in-law, hired Brandeis to defend the law. Known as “the people’s attorney,” Brandeis had tried for years to minimize what Thorstein Veblen had called the “discrepancy between law and fact.” The law, Brandeis argued, often did not correspond to the new economic and social facts of life in the United States. Lawyers and judges who blindly adhered to legal precedents and arguments about natural law actually knew little about twentieth century industrial conditions. Lawyers who did not understand economic and social realities were apt to become “public enemies.” In his brief in Muller v. Oregon, which was researched in large part by Kelley and Goldmark, Brandeis sought to make clear the economic and social realities of the women workers’ lives.

Florence Kelley.

(Library of Congress)

Brandeis’s legal argument took up merely two pages of his brief. He devoted more than one hundred pages to demonstrating that Oregon had adopted its ten-hour law in order to safeguard the public health, safety, and welfare of women. “Long hours of labor are dangerous for women,” Brandeis contended, because of the physiological differences between men and women. “Overwork . . . is more dangerous to the health of women than of men, and entails upon them more lasting injury.” Fatigue in working women, Brandeis asserted, often resulted in general deterioration of health, anemia, the destruction of nervous energy, difficulties in childbearing, and industrial accidents. He further argued that the effect of overwork on morals was closely related to poor health. A breakdown in the health and morals of women, moreover, would inevitably lower the entire community physically, mentally, and morally. The rise of infant mortality was an obvious example. In contrast, the good of the entire community was actually promoted by women’s working hours that did not cause the deterioration of health and morals. Brandeis marshaled his economic and social data so impressively that the Court was convinced to uphold the Oregon ten-hour law for women. In his majority opinion, delivered on February 24, 1908, Justice David J. Brewer made reference to the uniqueness and efficacy of the Brandeis brief.


Brandeis’s brief opened the way for the U.S. Supreme Court to examine factors other than legal precedents in reaching decisions. These other factors—social and economic data—which Brandeis called “what any fool knows,” became part of subsequent briefs propounding equitable labor conditions. In the long term, it was not only in labor cases that sociological jurisprudence became an accepted principle in the law. In 1954, in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) the Court relied on sociological data in determining that segregation of the races in education is unconstitutional.

Several years after Muller v. Oregon, Felix Frankfurter called the case“epoch-making” because of Brandeis’s approach. This approach, based on “the logic of facts,” has been an intrinsic part of legal and constitutional practice ever since, paving the way for so-called judicial activism and the entry of the courts into the “political thicket.” Opponents of this trend see judicial activism as the judicial system’s usurpation of the powers of the legislative and executive branches of government. Muller v. Oregon (1908) Brandeis brief Supreme Court, U.S.;sociological jurisprudence Sociological jurisprudence Women;labor issues

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blumberg, Dorothy R. Florence Kelley: The Making of a Social Pioneer. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1966. Biography provides little information about Muller v. Oregon but traces the influences that caused Kelley to become a social reformer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carrington, Paul D. Stewards of Democracy: Law as a Public Profession. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Discusses the role of lawyers in U.S. social and political history. Focuses on a number of individual attorneys who have practiced law with an awareness of a responsibility to the public. Chapter 15 is devoted to Brandeis. Includes references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frankfurter, Felix, ed. Mr. Justice Brandeis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1932. Articles by Felix Frankfurter, Max Lerner, Charles Evans Hughes, and Donald R. Richberg; introduction by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldmark, Josephine. Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley’s Life Story. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1953. A sympathetic study of the militant and socially conscious women reformers who pioneered efforts for the abolition of child labor and shorter hours and higher pay for women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mason, Alpheus Thomas. Brandeis: A Free Man’s Life. New York: Viking Press, 1946. An intimate portrait of Brandeis and the four stages of his career. Concise description of his participation in Muller v. Oregon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paper, Lewis J. Brandeis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983. A detailed biography with an accurate account of Brandeis’s involvement with Muller v. Oregon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: The Rise of Women’s Political Culture, 1830-1900. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. Biography covers the first forty years of Kelley’s life and also serves as a political history of the United States during a time when women were becoming increasingly active in opposition to workplace abuses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strum, Philippa. Louis D. Brandeis: Justice for the People. New York: Schocken Books, 1984. Discusses Brandeis and his importance in the legal world. Includes an in-depth account of Muller v. Oregon and the Brandeis brief.

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Categories: History