West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 397 (1937), was a U.S. Supreme Court case that ended the forty-year “Lochner Era”, a period in which the U.S. Supreme Court commonly struck down economic regulations by applying substantive due process to strike down laws determined to be infringing on ‘freedom of contract’. In this case, the Court turned away from its prior approach and ruled that laws that fix wages were constitutional and did not violate the ‘freedom of contract’ guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. This decision is also famously referred to as “the Switch in Time that Saved Nine,” denoting the perceived sudden jurisprudential shift of Justice Roberts, who had been the deciding vote in several previous decisions invalidating New Deal legislation and in this decision instead casted his vote to uphold the Washington state minimum wage law. Some accounts portray this switch as a strategic political move to protect the Court from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “court-packing plan”, but it has been argued by scholars that this is incorrect, and Justice Robert’s decision actually happened much earlier.
In October of 1929, the United States stock market crashed leading to the largest economic downturn in American history. This economic downturn created the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt ran his presidential election on the promise of fixing the nation’s economy. After his inauguration, Roosevelt implemented many New Deal policies, including the National Industrial Recovery Act, Social Security Act, and the National Labor Relations Act. States all over the nation began to implement these kinds of acts in an effort to create more revenue and profit to fix the economy. In 1932, Washington State enacted a law called “Minimum Wages for Women” that established set minimum wages for women and children in an effort to combat what they thought were negative influences on their health and moral values. To please not only the public, but also major industries, Washington state implemented a public commission that allowed input about what the appropriate wage should be. The wage agreement was $14.50 per week for 48 hours. Adkins v. Children’s Hospital dealt directly with the fixing of wages. In this case the Supreme Court decided that laws which fixed the terms of employment contracts violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Washington State Court
Elsie Parrish filed a complaint in the Washington State Court, requesting legal remedy in the form of damages sought to make up the difference between the wages she was paid and minimum wage. The Court found in favor of Respondent, West Coast Hotel Co.
Washington Supreme Court (55 P.2d 1083 (Wash. 1936))
The case was appealed to the Supreme Court for the State of Washington. The Court reversed the Washington State Court’s decision and ordered West Coast Hotel to pay Parrish’s damages, the difference between her weekly salary and the minimum wage under state law, by entering a judgment in favor of Parrish.
Supreme Court of the United States
The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court from the Supreme Court for the State of Washington. It was argued on December 16th and 17th, 1936, and decided on March 29, 1937 in a 5-4 decision reversing the trial court decision, and finding in favor of Appellee, Parrish.
- Does the Washington State “Minimum Wages for Women” law violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
Arguments by Appellant (West Coast Hotel Co.)
According to the West Coast Hotel Co., the hotel was not obligated to pay what Parrish claimed she was due under the precedent of the decision of Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, (261 U. S. 525), which ruled a District of Columbia minimum wage law invalid under the due process clause of the 5th Amendment.
They also used Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo, 298 U. S. 587, as an example, as it has shown minimum wage laws for women in New York were also determined by the Supreme Court to be invalid.
Arguments by Appellees (Parrish)
Counsel for Appellees, Ernest and Elsie Parrish, argued that because she was employed in a hotel, which often saw guests who were visiting from out of state, it was a conflict of public interest that she was being underpaid.
“…counsel for the appellees attempted to distinguish the Adkins case upon the ground that the appellee was employed in a hotel, and that the business of an innkeeper was affected with a public interest. That effort at distinction is obviously futile, as it appears that, in one of the cases ruled by the Adkins opinion, the employee was a woman employed as an elevator operator in a hotel. Adkins v. Lyons, 261 U. S. 525, at p. 261 U. S. 542.” – Justia
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the minimum wage law does not violate the “freedom of contract” guaranteed under the Due Process Clause. Washington State could impose minimum wage regulations on employers without violating their Fourteenth Amendment rights. Decision reversed the trial court decision, and affirmed Washington Supreme Court decision.
The Fourteenth Amendment therefore protects procedural due process, but not substantive due process. Thus, the argument that the minimum wage law is unconstitutional and violates the Fourteenth Amendment right to liberty is not sound because the constitution does not mention the right to freedom of contract.
Majority: Justice Hughes, Justice McReynolds, Justice Stone, Justice Brandeis and Justice Cordozo
Dissenting: Justice Sutherland, Justice Van Devanter, Justice McReynolds, and Justice Butler
Majority Opinion (Hughes)
Chief Justice Charles E. Hughes wrote and delivered the majority opinion of the Court, joined by Justice Roberts, Justice Stone, Justice Brandeis, and Justice Cordozo. The Court reasoned that the Constitution does not speak directly of freedom of contract, but of liberty and the deprivation of liberty without due process; thus, liberty is subject to the restraints of due process and reasonable regulation in the best interest of the state. The Court further reasoned that the Act did not violate the “freedom of contract” under the 14th Amendment Due Process Clause because it was reasonable and in the best interest of the state. The Court reasoned that the legislature has a wide field of discretion as to matters of protection of health and safety and exploitation of a class of workers of unequal bargaining power is detrimental to workers and society as a whole.
The Court concluded that the case of Adkins v. Children’s Hospital should be overruled and affirmed the judgment of the Supreme Court of the State of Washington.
Dissenting Opinion (Sutherland)
The only dissenting opinion was authored by Justice Sutherland, in which Justice Van Devanter, Justice McReynolds, and Justice Butler joined, arguing that the judgment of the appellate court should be reversed. The dissenting Justices reasoned that “the meaning of the Constitution does not change with the ebb and flow of economic events” and that it is not intended to be a living document to be interpreted as it relates to present circumstances, and therefore the only way to change the intended meaning would be through an amendment to the Constitution so as not to be subject to modification by public sentiment or action. The Justices further reasoned that it is not up to the courts to determine constitutionality of a statute that has been approved by the legislative and executive branches of government, and that doing so is in violation of the separation of powers. Further, they argued that freedom of contract should be the rule, and restraint upon that freedom the exception, and cite prior case law to illustrate that the power to abridge that freedom of contract could only be justified by extraordinary circumstances. Additionally, the Justices refute the statement that there is any state interest in fixing wages for women and that doing so is essentially gender discrimination as both sexes have the same capability to contract out their labor.
Key Citations Used: Adkins v. Children’s Hospital of D.C., 261 U.S. 525 (1923); Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo, 298 U.S. 587 (1936)
Full Text of Opinions
West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937) is viewed as the case that ended the “Lochner Era”, a forty-year period in which the U.S. Supreme Court commonly struck down economic regulations by applying substantive due process to strike down state laws determined to be infringing on ‘freedom of contract’. The Supreme Court in this case confirmed a state minimum wage law for women, determining that state laws that fix wages are constitutional and do not violate ‘freedom of contract’ protected by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. This ruling overturned the prior Lochner Era case Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923), ending the idea of economic substantive due process.
This 5-4 decision is also famously regarded as the “Switch in Time that Saved Nine”, denoting the perceived sudden jurisprudential shift of Justice Roberts, who had been the deciding vote in several previous decisions invalidating New Deal legislation. In this decision however, Justice Roberts casted his vote to uphold the Washington state minimum wage law. Some accounts portray this switch as a strategic political move to protect the Court from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “court-packing plan” that would have added up to 15 justices to the bench, but it has been argued by scholars that this is historically incorrect, and Justice Robert’s decision actually happened much earlier.
Scholarly Commentary and Debate
- The Fourtheenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Section 1, Due Process Clause
Government Law or Action Under Review
A statute of the State of Washington (Laws, 1913, c.174; Remington’s Rev.Stats.,1932, § 7623 et seq.) (“Minimum Wages for Women”)
This statute was established to combat “pernicious effects on their health and morals” and protect women and children from working under hazard conditions.
“SECTION 1. The welfare of the State of Washington demands that women and minors be protected from conditions of labor which have a pernicious effect on their health and morals. The State of Washington, therefore, exercising herein its police and sovereign power declares that inadequate wages and unsanitary conditions of labor exert such pernicious effect.”
“SEC. 2. It shall be unlawful to employ women or minors in any industry or occupation within the State of Washington under conditions of labor detrimental to their health or morals, and it shall be unlawful to employ [p*387] women workers in any industry within the State of Washington at wages which are not adequate for their maintenance.”
“SEC. 3. There is hereby created a commission to be known as the “Industrial Welfare Commission” for the State of Washington, to establish such standards of wages and conditions of labor for women and minors employed within the State of Washington as shall be held hereunder to be reasonable and not detrimental to health and morals, and which shall be sufficient for the decent maintenance of women”
West Coast Hotel v. Parrish ended the “Lochner Era” of the Supreme Court. Lochner v. New York was a case regarding limiting the hours bakers could work per week. Lochner argued this limit on work hours was unconstitutional and the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in favor of Lochner, finding that the law was unconstitutional because employers and employees have the right to contract.
Muller argued against an Oregon law which restricted the hours women could work per week to a maximum of only 10 hours per day. This ruling did not overrule Lochner v. New York, but “distinguished the differences between the sexes.” The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oregon law in this case and Muller was fined $10.
In Adkins, the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to set a minimum wage for women and children. The case of Muller v. Oregon was cited as precedent and the Supreme Court ruled that if maximum working hours for women could not be set because of the right to contract, than a minimum wage could not be set either under the same reasoning.
- Morehead v. New York (1936)
A New York minimum wage law attempted to set a minimum wage determined by class of work or service. The Court found this to be an attempt to satisfy the narrow law set for minimum wage already. The Supreme Court ruled it as unconstitutional.
Important Subsequent Cases
After the rejection of substantive due process in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, the Court ruled in U.S. v. Carolene Products that as long as economic regulations passed the ‘rational basis test’ then they would not violate the Due Process Clause. This case illustrates the shifting focus of the Court from economic legislation to use of heightened scrutiny for other fundamental rights.
In this case, the Supreme Court upheld the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and found that under the Commerce Clause Congress could impose a minimum wage law. The Supreme Court made this decision in an effort to prevent states from using substandard labor practices to their advantages.
- Bernstein, David. “The Significance of West Coast Hotel v. Parrish: Originalism vs. Living Constitutionalism?” The Volokh Conspiracy. October 10, 2012. Accessed November 28, 2016. http://volokh.com/2012/10/10/the-significance-of-west-coast-hotel-v-parrish-originalis.
- “Body Politic: West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish.” Oyez. Accessed December 5, 2016. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1900-1940/300us379.
- McBride, Alex. “The Supreme Court: Capitalism and Conflict.” PBS. Accessed November 13, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/capitalism/landmark_westcoast.html.
- “National Constitution Center – Centuries of Citizenship – It’s a Bad Day for the New Deal at the Supreme Court.” National Constitution Center – Centuries of Citizenship – It’s a Bad Day for the New Deal at the Supreme Court. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://constitutioncenter.org/timeline/html/cw09_12212.html.
- Skelton, Chris. “West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish 300 U.S. 379 (1937).” Justia Law. Accessed December 13, 2016. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/300/379/.
- “Substantive Due Process.” LII / Legal Information Institute. Accessed November 24, 2016. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/substantive_due_process.
- “The New Deal in Decline.” Digital History. 2016. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3450.
- “West Coast Hotel v. Parrish – Significance, A Test Case, A Close Vote, James Clark Mcreynolds, Further Readings.” Court, Justices, Appellant, and York – JRank Articles. Accessed December 07, 2016. http://law.jrank.org/pages/13595/West-Coast-Hotel-v-Parrish.htm.
- White, G. Edward. “West Coast Hotel’s Place in American Constitutional History.” The Yale Law Journal – Home. Accessed December 03, 2016. http://www.yalelawjournal.org/forum/west-coast-hotels-place-in-american-constitutional-history.
Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews
- G. Edward White, West Coast Hotel’s Place in American Constitutional History, 122 Yale L.J. 69 (2012)
- U.S. Department of Labor, Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, 29 U.S.C. 201, et seq.
- Knowles, Helen J. “‘Omak’s Minimum Pay Law Joan D’arc’: Telling The Local Story Of West Coast Hotel V. Parrish (1937).” Journal Of Supreme Court History 37.3 (2012): 283-304.
- Richard A. Epstein, “The Mistakes of 1937,” 11 George Mason University Law Review 5 (1988). (PDF Version available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2284&context=journal_articles)
- Conkle, Daniel O. (1987) “The Second Death of Substantive Due Process,” Indiana Law Journal: Vol. 62: Iss. 2, Article 5.
- Caldeira, Gregory A., “Public Opinion and the U.S. Supreme Court: FDR’s Court-Packing Plan” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 81, Issue 4. (Dec. 1987), 1139-1153 (PDF Version available from JSTOR: http://epstein.wustl.edu/research/courses.changecaldeira1.pdf)
- Elizabeth Sepper, “Free Exercise Lochnerism” Columbia Law Review Vol. 115, Issue 6 (Oct 2015)
Reaghan Braun, Karina Marquez, Kaitlyn Baker, Derek Law, Tristan Bohling (Fall 2016)
Tasks for Future Contributors
Decision Analysis & Scholarly Commentary and Debate