Peckham, Rufus W. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During his Supreme Court tenure, Peckham wrote some of the major opinions protecting the liberty to contract and consistently voted to strike down government regulation of economic freedoms.

Born in New York, Peckham followed in his father and brother’s footsteps when choosing a law career. He rose through the New York Democratic Party ranks. He became friendly with the Democratic governor, Grover Cleveland, who supported him in his bid to be elected to the state’s highest court. During Peckham’s tenure on the state supreme court, he was introduced to a conservative property rights agenda. It was during this time that his legal views solidified.Cleveland, Grover;nominations to the Court

Rufus W. Peckham

(Library of Congress)

After Cleveland was elected president of the United States, he sought to reward his loyal New York supporters through government appointments. During his first term, Cleveland chose Peckham’s older brother, Wheeler H. Peckham, for one of his early Supreme Court appointments. The older Peckham, however, was rejected by the Senate, opening the way for his brother to be appointed. In 1895 Cleveland nominated the younger Peckham, who was easily confirmed.

Freedom of Contract

Justice Peckham immediately joined the conservative wing of the Court, which included Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller and Justice David J. Brewer, and expressed strong support for property rightsProperty rights. In one of his early opinions, Allgeyer v. Louisiana[case]Allgeyer v. Louisiana[Allgeyer v. Louisiana] (1897), Peckham spoke for a unanimous Court in striking down a Louisiana insurance law as a violation of the freedom of contract. In Allgeyer, Peckham defined this new right as constitutional protection for an individual’s ability to choose an occupation freely and employ his or her faculties and skills without burdensome government regulation. This placed the Court and Peckham in direct confrontation with Progressive politicians who wanted to use legislation to alleviate some of the problems associated with the new industrial society. Peckham, though, saw such legislation as a threat to the continued development of the economy and a clear violation of liberty rights under the U.S. Constitution. For the next forty years, Peckham’s broad definition of freedom of contractContract, freedom of held sway over the Court’s jurisprudence.

As one of the creators of this new right, Peckham was unwavering in his support. He was one of two dissenters in Holden v. Hardy[case]Holden v. Hardy[Holden v. Hardy] (1898), which upheld a ten-hour workday for miners and allowed regulation of the freedom of contract when the state was acting to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare.

He also wrote the well-known Lochner v. New York[case]Lochner v. New York[Lochner v. New York] (1905) opinion. Lochner dealt with a New York state law that limited bakers to ten-hour workdays and placed other restrictions on the baking industry within the state. Lochner, a bakery owner, was found to have violated the law and fined. He appealed the fine through the courts, claiming that his freedom to contract with his workers had been violated. Peckham agreed and wrote for a narrowly divided Court that struck down the law as unconstitutional. Peckham accused the legislature of engaging in special interest legislation rather than protecting workers’ health, safety, and welfare. He noted that baking was not a dangerous occupation and that only a small group of workers rather than the entire public benefited from the regulation.

Although the Lochner decision was subsequently denounced as judicial activism at its worst, Peckham’s opinion adhered to the Court’s established precedent and remained good law into the 1930’s. Lochner bolstered Peckham’s reputation as a defender of individual economic rights.

Eleventh Amendment

Peckham’s effect on the Court’s jurisprudence stretches beyond his opinions on freedom of contract, all of which were overruled by later courts. He also sought to expand the power of the federal courts in ruling on state legislation. However, he was faced with the strictures of the Eleventh AmendmentEleventh Amendment, which prohibited individuals from suing state governments in federal courts. In one of his most long-standing opinions, Ex parte Young[case]Young, Ex parte[Young, Ex parte] (1908), Peckham reinterpreted the amendment to allow lawsuits against states. In Young, railroads were required to post rates according to the rate schedule created by the state. Failure to post such a schedule would lead to a hefty fine and possible imprisonment. Young, a railroad executive, appealed and sought to have the law overturned in federal court. His case was thrown out under the Eleventh Amendment. When Young’s appeal reached the Court, Justice Peckham was more sympathetic. In his decision, Peckham interpreted the Eleventh Amendment as allowing a state citizen to sue a state official in federal court. He argued that when a state official attempts to enforce an unconstitutional law, that official’s immunity from a federal lawsuit no longer exists. Peckham’s Young decision remained the authoritative interpretation of the amendment, allowing individuals to bring state officials before federal courts.

Justice Peckham, though, was less willing to expand federal power when it involved Congress’s ability to regulate commerce. He dissented in Champion v. Ames[case]Champion v. Ames[Champion v. Ames] (1903), in which the Court upheld a federal law prohibiting interstate selling of lottery tickets. In Adair v. United States[case]Adair v. United States[Adair v. United States] (1908), he voted with a six-member majority that struck down as unconstitutional a federal law prohibiting the firing of workers based on their belonging to a union. Peckham agreed that the law exceeded Congress’s power to regulate commerce and violated the freedom of contract doctrine.

During his thirteen years on the Court, Peckham left a legacy of unwavering support for individual economic rights and a distrust of government regulation. When he died in 1909, his vision of the Constitution controlled the Court’s agenda, and though many of his decisions were subsequently overruled, his effect on the Court during the turn of the century is unquestioned.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Ely, James W., Jr. The Chief Justiceship of Melville Fuller. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Ely, James W., Jr. The Fuller Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Fiss, Owen. National Expansion and Economic Growth. New York: Macmillan, 1982.
  • Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • Gillman, Howard. The Constitution Besieged. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.
  • Swindler, William. The Court and the Constitution in the Twentieth Century. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.

Adair v. United States

Allgeyer v. Louisiana

Contract, freedom of

Eleventh Amendment

Holden v. Hardy

Lochner v. New York

Peckham, Wheeler H.

Property rights

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