U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Maximum Hours Law Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By ruling that maximum hours laws were unconstitutional in Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court upheld the freedom of contract and severely limited the ability of states to enact workplace reform legislation.

Summary of Event

On April 17, 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled five to four in the case of Lochner v. New York that maximum hours laws were an unreasonable interference with the liberty of contract. Liberty of contract doctrine The Court ruled that the power of the state to regulate did not outweigh the freedom of contract. The ruling struck down an 1895 New York statute that had limited the number of work hours for any employee in any bakery or confectionery establishment to no more than ten hours in a day or sixty hours in a week. New York’s labor law was an example of the aggressive interventionist and experimental policies that several states had begun pursuing around the beginning of the twentieth century. The Court held that New York’s experiment had been a “meddlesome interference” and an undue infringement on the right of free contract and thus of the private rights of the employer. In a powerful and eloquent dissent, Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., held that the states had the authority to pursue their own social experiments and enact reform legislation. Supreme Court, U.S.;labor law Lochner v. New York (1905) Labor law;maximum hours Maximum hours laws [kw]U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Maximum Hours Law (Apr. 17, 1905) [kw]Supreme Court Strikes Down Maximum Hours Law, U.S. (Apr. 17, 1905) [kw]Court Strikes Down Maximum Hours Law, U.S. Supreme (Apr. 17, 1905) [kw]Maximum Hours Law, U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down (Apr. 17, 1905) [kw]Hours Law, U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Maximum (Apr. 17, 1905) [kw]Law, U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Maximum Hours (Apr. 17, 1905) Supreme Court, U.S.;labor law Lochner v. New York (1905) Labor law;maximum hours Maximum hours laws [g]United States;Apr. 17, 1905: U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Maximum Hours Law[01290] [c]Business and labor;Apr. 17, 1905: U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Maximum Hours Law[01290] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 17, 1905: U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Maximum Hours Law[01290] Peckham, Rufus W. Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. Harlan, John Marshall Spencer, Herbert

New York’s Bakeshop Act Bakeshop Act (1895) had been enacted in an effort to regulate and improve the often dreadful working and health conditions in the state’s cramped bakeshops, establishments that often employed only a handful of workers and frequently were located in the basements of tenement buildings. Passed as an act to regulate the manufacture of flour and meal food products, the Bakeshop Act established maximum hours and required that bakeries be drained and plumbed; that products be stored in dry and airy rooms; that walls and floors be plastered, tiled, or otherwise finished; and that inspections be carried out by officials.

The law was not the first attempt to set limits on hours worked. Among the earliest efforts to regulate hours of work was an executive order signed by President Martin Van Buren in 1840 that limited the daily hours of labor in government navy yards to ten. Most early efforts to set limits on hours of labor concerned the employment of women and children. Massachusetts and Connecticut both passed laws limiting the number of hours for children employed in manufacturing establishments as early as 1842. By the late nineteenth century, laws limiting hours for women, children, or both had been passed in New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

Those who supported limiting the hours of work argued that doing so would enhance the efficiency or productivity of labor and improve public health. Proponents of maximum hours legislation asserted that limits on the length of daily labor would lead to qualitative as well as quantitative improvements. Clearly, any bakeshop laborer who toiled long hours in cramped sweatshop conditions stood to gain some benefit, but proponents argued that there were also potential benefits for the consumers of baked goods. The principal arguments against such legislation were simply that it was an overextension of the police powers of the state and that it infringed on the right of freedom of contract. Moreover, proponents of the theories of social Darwinism and laissez-faire economics insisted that such government intervention constituted an unjustified and inefficient disruption of the free market.

Joseph Lochner Lochner, Joseph owned and operated a small bread bakery in Utica, New York. After being twice found guilty of violating New York’s Bakeshop Act, he was fined $50. He appealed his conviction to the New York Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeals, losing each time. His case ultimately made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Why this case emerged as the test case for a host of reform legislation is unclear; Lochner’s bakery was a small and relatively obscure establishment. An ongoing clash between Lochner and the Utica branch of the journeyman bakers’ union may have led to his fine and kept this case alive on appeal.

The majority opinion in Lochner was written by Associate Justice Rufus W. Peckham. Peckham was known for his staunch support of laissez-faire policies and his contempt for government regulation, stances that would lead others to link Peckham with the writings of Herbert Spencer, an influential scientist and philosopher who was one of the most outspoken champions of social Darwinism. In the Court’s ruling in the 1897 case of Allgeyer v. Louisiana, Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897) Peckham had written the opinion that held a law unconstitutional for depriving a person of liberty of contract. Any contract suitable to the operation of a lawful business was thus afforded protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The doctrine of liberty of contract, established in Allgeyer, was advanced in Lochner.

In Lochner, Peckham held that there was no reasonable ground for interfering with the liberty of a person or the right of free contract by determining the hours of labor in this particular case. Although he acknowledged the power of states to protect the health and morals of citizens in specific situations, he questioned the need for protection of bakers. Laboring long hours in a bakery, although perhaps unpleasant and posing some health risks, was neither as arduous nor as unsafe as working at many other occupations. By restricting the freedom of contract, New York’s Bakeshop Act had violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment Fourteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) and as such was unconstitutional. Because the connection between bakeries and health remained shadowy, the states were not free to exercise police or regulatory powers under the guise of conserving morals, health, or safety.

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan held that New York’s Bakeshop Act was not in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment and that the states had the “power to guard the health and safety of their citizens by such regulations as they in their wisdom deem best.” Justice Harlan held that it was clearly within the discretionary power of the states to enact laws regarding health conditions and that such statutes should be enforced unless they could be demonstrated to have plainly violated the “fundamental law of the Constitution.” In Harlan’s opinion, the use of the Fourteenth Amendment to invalidate New York’s statute would in effect cripple the states in their ability to ensure the well-being of their citizens.

In a forceful and eloquent dissent, Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., held that the majority decision in Lochner was based on an economic theory rather than on law and that a “constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory.” In this well-known dissent, Justice Holmes criticized the majority for extending the doctrine of liberty of contract and for defining too narrowly the states’ police power. Holmes went on to write that a constitution is written for people of fundamentally differing views and that the “Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statistics.”


The immediate impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lochner was to restrict, or at least postpone, the ability of states to regulate such economic issues as maximum hours and minimum wages. Exactly how the Court would define the regulatory role of the states was an issue of great interest to reform-minded legislatures as well as to employers and their employees. The use of legislative reform was becoming more common, but such legislation often faced hostile review by the generally conservative courts.

Within a matter of a few years, the movement for shorter hours appeared to have won, lost, and then won again in significant cases before the Supreme Court. In 1898, the Court upheld a limitation on hours for Utah miners and smelters in Holden v. Hardy. Holden v. Hardy (1898) In 1905, it reversed Joseph Lochner’s conviction as an illegal and unwarranted interference with the liberty of contract, but in 1908 it upheld an Oregon law limiting hours for women in factories and laundries in Muller v. Oregon. Muller v. Oregon (1908)

The Court’s majority apparently viewed Lochner differently from the other two cases because its members saw no good reason bakers should be singled out; if bakers’ hours were regulated, then regulations on others would follow. Exceptions could be made for inherently dangerous occupations or in the case of women and children, but a general limitation on hours was not yet to be accepted. A 1917 ruling, in Bunting v. Oregon, Bunting v. Oregon (1917) accepted a ten-hour day for men and women on the grounds of preserving the health and safety of workers, but only because the legislation did not apply to all workers; it applied only to workers in certain inherently dangerous industries.

The implications of the Court’s ruling in Lochner obviously extended far beyond Joseph Lochner and the treatment of bakers in Utica bakeshops. The Court’s decision signified an ardent acceptance by the Court majority of the doctrine of laissez-faire Laissez-faire doctrine[Laissez faire doctrine] capitalism and a belief that reform legislation and the regulatory movement could be suspended by the courts. By ruling against the state of New York, the Court sent a clear message of hostility to any reform-minded legislative body. Liberty of contract, in this case the right of Joseph Lochner to make his own contracts and control his property, took precedence over the right of the state to exercise its police powers.

Up until the economic crisis of the Great Depression, the mostly conservative justices of the Supreme Court used the doctrine of liberty of contract to limit the ability of states to enact workplace reform legislation. Specific contracts could always be struck down, but only in those cases with narrowly defined public purposes. A notable example of prevailing judicial temperament can be seen in the 1908 case that outlawed “yellow-dog contracts,” Adair v. United States. Adair v. United States (1908) A law protecting union members by prohibiting yellow-dog contracts, Yellow-dog contracts[Yellow dog contracts] Contracts;yellow-dog[yellow dog] under which employees promised not to join a union, was judged by the Court to be an unreasonable invasion of personal liberty and property rights. This reliance on liberty of contract and devotion to laissez-faire economic doctrines remained a marked feature of the Court for some years. However, not all scholars agree that the Court was as hostile to regulatory legislation and as antilabor as a few of these decisions might imply.

The decision in Lochner ranks among the most famous of all Supreme Court rulings, but for dubious reasons. Many consider it now, as Justice Holmes considered it then, an insensible ruling that ignored the hardships of sweatshop labor and launched a misguided assault on reform legislation. The premise of the decision later came into question. Rather than removing labor relations from the domain of politics, the decision resulted in eventual general acceptance of the notion that public debate and legislative action on economic issues are appropriate uses of police powers.

Social change is often a difficult and lengthy process. The necessary adjustments of an emerging industrial and increasingly urban society, with their resulting conflicts in labor relations, raised perplexing issues. Progressive reformers, and later New Dealers, who sought change through legislative enactments found, as in Lochner, that the courts were often unsympathetic. The realities and the pressures of the Great Depression led to a pervasive revision of judicial, political, and economic philosophies. New and inventive attempts were made to revitalize the economy, and legislatures were generally given more freedom to exercise regulatory powers. Supreme Court, U.S.;labor law Lochner v. New York (1905) Labor law;maximum hours Maximum hours laws

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Commons, John R., ed. History of Labor in the United States, 1896-1932. Vol. 3 in History of Labor in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1935. Includes Don D. Lescohier’s “Working Conditions” and Elizabeth Brandeis’s “Labor Legislation,” which are particularly helpful for placing Lochner v. New York in context. Thoroughly documented, with extensive bibliography and index. The set of which this volume is a part is a pioneering work of American labor history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Kermit L., ed. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Provides a detailed and useful outline of the history of the Court, major decisions and doctrines that have guided and influenced Court rulings dating back to 1789, and brief biographies of every justice who has served on the Court as well as other historically significant characters. Concise but detailed entries help to make landmark cases and legal terms accessible to a variety of users.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Multiauthored collection of essays on more than four hundred significant Court decisions, with supporting glossary and other aids.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kens, Paul. Judicial Power and Reform Politics: The Anatomy of “Lochner v. New York.” Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990. Presents a well-written and well-documented analysis of the issues surrounding the Lochner case, bakeries at the beginning of the twentieth century, the politics of reform legislation, and the ramifications of the Court’s decision.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lerner, Max, and Robert G. McCloskey. “The Supreme Court and American Capitalism.” In Essays in Constitutional Law. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957. Originally published in 1933, this is an interpretation of the Supreme Court as the institution that links the nation’s supreme law and its economic system of capitalism. Not quite a theory of economic determinism, it fit the Lochner era well and explained the views of justices Holmes and Harlan, as well as Peckham, but would not accommodate an activist, rights-oriented Court such as existed in the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nichols, Egbert Ray, and Joseph H. Baccus, eds. Selected Articles on Minimum Wages and Maximum Hours. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1936. Outlines and defines the debate over whether Congress has the power to fix minimum wages and maximum hours for workers. Reprints of editorials and comments offer a variety of legal, political, and economic interpretations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Siegan, Bernard H. Economic Liberties and the Constitution. 2d ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2005. An examination of changing judicial policy and the Court’s review of economic legislation. Offers an explanation of alternative views of substantive due process and the protection of economic liberties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skocpol, Theda, and Gretchen Ritter. “Gender and the Origins of Modern Social Policies in Britain and the United States.” Studies in American Political Development (Spring, 1991): 36-93. This long, well-documented article explains how differing governmental and class structures led to paternalistic social policies in Great Britain and maternalistic social policies in the United States in the early twentieth century. In relation to the United States, it offers an interesting discussion of the role of women’s clubs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Supreme Court. “Lochner v. New York.” United States Reports 198 (1905): 45. The case itself is the best source of information on the views of the justices. It is relatively brief and within the grasp of readers without a legal background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Supreme Court. “Muller v. Oregon.” United States Reports 208 (1908): 412. This case regarding maximum hours for women is also worth reading.

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Categories: History