Adkins v Children’s Hospital (1923)


Adkins v Children’s Hospital, 261 U.S. 525, was a U.S. Supreme Court case that dealt with the constitutionality of a minimum wage for women and children. This case was a part of the Lochner Era cases which involved using substantive due process for constitutional interpretation. In 1918, Congress established a price-fixing law that would create a minimum wage for all women and children in the District of Columbia. D.C’s Children’s Hospital brought a suit against the wage board that was appointed to set the wage, which was headed by Adkins. They claimed that the statute violated the freedom of contract found  in the Due Process Clause of the 5th Amendment as established in the case of Lochner v New York. The Supreme Court struck down the law because it provided the same wages regardless of occupation and prohibited women from being able to practice their 5th Amendment right of freedom of contract. The court also stated that the statute gave favor to women over men, which was no longer necessary in light of the 19th Amendment.

First Timeline


This case involves two different appeals. Willie Lyons was a 21 year old elevator operator who worked at the Congress Hall Hotel in Washington DC. Lyons did not have any complaints or have any grievances with her job which she thought was easy, provided flexible hours, 2 meals a day and excellent working conditions. Lyons wanted to stay and work for the hotel but was forced to resign. On September 19, 1918, Congress passed a law establishing the District of Columbia Minimum Wage Board. This statute set the minimum wage paid to any woman or child working in the nation’s capital based on what job they were performing. The law stated that women working in a place where food is served should receive 16.50 a week or more, and those who work in a place such as a laundry mat would receive 15.00 a week. Based on this statute Lyons had to resign/be terminated or the Congress Hall Hotel would face legal issues.

Procedural History

Willie Lyons petitioned the court for an injunction under Jesse Adkins, arguing that  she could not acquire a better job with the salary she was receiving ( $35.00 a month). The Children’s Hospital of the District of Columbia sued to refrain the board from enforcing the minimum wage statute stating that it violated the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause. Both cases were affirmed by the supreme Court of the District of Columbia. The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision. After rehearing in 1922, the decision was reversed and a divided bench went on to declare the law unconstitutional. After more appeals the case went to the Supreme Court of the United States on March 4th, 1923 and was decided April 9th, 1923.


Is the statute establishing a minimum wage for women and children in D.C. constitutional?

Arguments by Petitioner

Arguments by Respondent


In a 5-3 vote, the court ruled that minimum wage laws for women are unconstitutional because they interfere with the liberty of contract guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The decision of District of Columbia’s supreme court was affirmed.

Majority Vote: Sutherland joined by McKenna, Van Devanter, McReynolds and Butler

Dissent: Taft joined by Sanford

Dissent: Holmes

*Justice Brandeis did not participate in this case.*

Majority Opinion (Sutherland)

Justice Sutherland wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justice McKenna, Justice Van Devanter, Justice McReynolds and Justice Butler. The Court makes it clear that Liberty of Contract is in fact protected by the constitution because “the parties have an equal right to obtain from each other the best terms they can as the result of private bargaining.” The court also cites a variety of cases to show that the recently passed 19th Amendment is a “vanishing point” for inequality among men and women. The court does however recognize that there is a difference between the physicality of men and women but state that “women of mature age” should not be stripped of their ability to negotiate the terms of their jobs if the same would not be done to men in a similar situation. The difference between placing a limit on the number of hours an employee can work and the amount of money an employee can make is also mentioned. The court states that limiting the amount of hours that a person works does not affect their ability to negotiate wages as setting a minimum wage does. The court feels that the board appointed doesn’t take into consideration the individual circumstances of the women that the statute affects, it only takes into consideration what the board was able to agree on and it applies to every occupation no matter how much work it requires. The statute takes into consideration the needs of the employee and not the employer. It doesn’t consider if the employer has enough money to pay the wage and the negative effects that the penalties from the statute will have on the employer.  The majority found that due to these reasons, a minimum wage law is unconstitutional.

Dissenting Opinion (Taft)

Justice Taft wrote a dissenting opinion which was joined by Justice Sanford. He feels that a violation of freedom of contract is not easy to determine and the court should not overturn an act of congress simply because they do not agree with it. Although he feels that setting a minimum wage implies that the employee and employer are not equal, he stated that congress makes those types of laws to benefit the public as a whole. With the acknowledgment that congress has the right to establish maximum hours, found in Muller v Oregon and Lochner v New York, Taft argues that congress should also be allowed to set a minimum wage. He uses the rule about overtime wages established in Bunting v Oregon to explain why he feels that a maximum wage and a minimum wage are equally important. He also feels that the court’s decision to strike down the law is because of the fact that allowing a minimum wage could lead to allowing a maximum wage. Citing the 19th Amendment is another issue that Taft has with the majority opinion. He states that the 19th Amendment does not change the physicality of women, and the ruling should not be based on the difference in physicality of men and women.

Dissenting Opinion (Holmes)

Justice Holmes wrote a dissenting opinion. He felt that 5th amendment is too vague because the word contract is not specifically stated. Justice Holmes felt that the case was just another instance of the court using shortcuts to do what it wants to.  He referred to the decision as “merely an example of doing what you want to do, embodied in the word liberty.” Justice Holmes sites Bunting v Oregon, noting that it allows a set time that after which men have to be paid overtime. He stated that if  maximum work hours can be set then minimum wage should be able to be set. He also mentioned that the majority would need more than the 19th amendment to convince him that women and men are not different.

Full Text of Opinions

Decision Analysis

Significance / Impact

This case was a part of the Lochner Era cases which involved using substantive due process to interpret the freedom of contract found in the 5th Amendment. The Lochner era of cases were seen as a time in which the Supreme Court consistently ruled against federal legislation about economic policies. It was eventually overturned by West Coast Hotel v Parrish (1937).

Second Timeline

Scholarly Commentary and Debate

Constitutional Provisions

  • 5th Amendment Due Process Clause

Government Law or Action Under Review

  • 1918 District of Columbia Minimum Wage Act

Important Precedents

Important Subsequent Cases

Web Resources

“10 Landmark Court Cases in Women’s Rights – Criminal Justice Degrees Guide.” Criminal Justice Degrees Guide. Accessed December 06, 2016.
“Adkins v. Children’s Hosp. 261 U.S. 525 (1923).” Justia Law. Accessed December 06, 2016.
McBride, Alex. “Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923).” PBS. Accessed December 06, 2016.

Academic Books, Articles, and Law Reviews

Zimmerman, Joan G. 1991. “The Jurisprudence of Equality: The Women’s Minimum Wage, the First Equal Rights Amendment, and Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, 1905-1923.” The Journal of American History, 1991. 188. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost (accessed October 3, 2016) *

“Statutes. Retroactive Operation of a Decision Overruling a Prior Holding on the Validity of a Statute.” Columbia Law Review 37, no. 6 (1937): 1017-1019.

Ryan, Franklin Winton. 1924. “THE WAGE BARGAIN AND THE MINIMUM WAGE DECISION.” Harvard Business Review 2, no. 2: 207-218. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 3, 2016). *

V., McG., et al. “Comment on Cases.” California Law Review 11, no. 5 (July 1923): 347. Legal Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed October 5, 2016).

Kreiser, Christine M. 2014. “Minimum Wage.” American History 49, no. 3: 16. MasterFILE Elite, EBSCOhost (accessed October 5, 2016).


Fall 2016: [Ariel Patrick, Kennon Stockwell, Andrey Reznik, Allison Allen]

Tasks for Future Contributors

1. There is further work that could be done on procedural history, specifically finding the actual dates that events happened.

2. There is further work that could be done to improve the timelines, specifically research more significant events.