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1886-1906: We encounter prosperity and its perils in an industrial age

April 17, 1905
The Supreme Court overturns a New York law on bakers’ hours

Bakery worker placing bread on racks

“Is this a fair, reasonable, and appropriate exercise of the police power of the state, or is it an unreasonable, unnecessary, and arbitrary interference with the right of the individual to his personal liberty?”
—Justice Rufus Peckham
Lochner v. New York

In today’s Lochner case, the Supreme Court overturned a state law that limited bakery workers to six 10-hour days a week.

The law wasn’t really about the health of bakers or the public, said the majority. The state had “other motives”—regulating working hours in a private business. And that, says the Court, is a “meddlesome interference” with workers’ and employers’ constitutional right to make contracts freely.

That right, they say, is part of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee that no one shall be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Justice Holmes dissented. He accused his colleagues of deciding this case by the current economic thinking that the less government interferes with business, the better. The Constitution, he warns, should not “embody a particular economic theory.”

The Court’s the one interfering here, he and three other dissenters say—by substituting its judgment for that of the elected New York lawmakers.

Read about it in the New York times

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