Lochner v. New York (1905)


Lochner v. New York, 196 US 45, was a Supreme Court case that struck down a state law that violated the freedom of contract protected by Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the court declared that the Bakeshop Act of 1895 violated the liberty of contract protected by the 14th amendment due process clause. This commenced the “Lochner era”, a period of court decisions that used substantive due process to interpret the 14th amendment. This era heavily impacted economic regulations by favoring a laissez-faire approach.    

Timeline 1


In 1895, New York signed into law the Bakeshop Act. This act contained few sanitation provisions, but the core principle was the limiting of workers hours. Bakery workers could only work ten hours a day and sixty hours a week under this provision. In October 1901, John Lochner was indicted for violation of the Bakeshop Act by still allowing his employees to work over sixty hours a week. Lochner took his case all the way to the Supreme Court arguing that this act was unconstitutional. He contended that the act did not fall within the police powers of the state and it violated the liberty of contract under the fourteenth amendment.  

Procedural History

1897- The New York legislature passed the law with which Lochner will be charged with violating.

1899- Lochner is convicted for allowing one of his employees to work more than 60 hours in a week. He is fined $25.

1901- Lochner is indicted a second time for violating the same law.

February 12, 1902- Lochner is convicted and fined $50 by the Oneida County Court.

1902- Lochner appealed his case.

May 18, 1902- The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision in a 3-2 split.

January 12, 1904- Lochner again appeals his case to the New York Court of Appeals. He loses in a 4-3 decision.

February 23 & 24, 1905- The case is argued before the Supreme Court.

April 17, 1905- The Supreme Court issues the decision of the court where they overturn the lower courts’ decisions in a 5-4 split.


Does the Bakeshop Act of 1895 violate the freedom of contract protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment? 


In Lochner v. New York, the court held that the New York statute violated liberty of contract protected by the 14th amendment’s due process clause. It was a 5-4 decision. The majority opinion was written by Justice Peckham, joined by Chief Justice Fuller and Justices Brown, McKenna, and Brewer. Justice Harlan was joined in the dissent by Justices White and Day. Justice Holmes wrote a separate dissenting opinion. The Lochner decision reversed  the New York courts’ decisions.

Majority Opinion (Peckham)

Justice Peckham wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justice Fuller, Justice Brown, Justice McKenna, and Justice Brewer. Justice Peckham began by stating that states have police power and the Fourteenth Amendment was not intended to preclude states from exercising that power. Therefore, if it be a legitimate use of police power, states can infringe on liberty of contract. However, there is a limit to the use of police power because otherwise state legislatures would use it freely to justify any law. Cases where the court has upheld laws limiting work hours were discussed. However, it was decided that none of those cases applied to this one as those cases concerned conventionally unhealthy jobs such as mining and smelting and conventional wisdom does not define baking as perilous to the health. The court opined that “clean and wholesome bread” is not contingent upon how long a baker works. The court conceded that baking is not the healthiest profession, but almost no profession is absolutely without health risks and allowing this law to stand means any profession could be regulated.  A health law cannot be valid “unless there be some fair ground, reasonable in and of itself, to say that there is material danger to the public health or to the health of the employees if the hours of labor are not curtailed.” The majority opinion also suggested that there was a motive for the law other than to promote the public health. Ultimately, the court decided that the law was not within the police power of the state and not valid as a health law, thereby reversing the opinion of the lower court.

Dissenting Opinion (Harlan)

Harlan authored a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices White and Day. In Harlan’s dissent, he argues that the Court’s reasoning for wanting to strike down the New York statute widens “the scope of the 14th amendment beyond its original purpose.” Harlan dissented because he believes that the court is taking unnecessary action in a debate that should only concern the state legislatures and its people. He states that the court does not explicitly understand the boundaries of the police power of the state but they are recognized. Judge Harlan created a rule that had the purpose of explaining when the court has the ability to review a state legislature’s actions. The rule says,when that which the legislature has done comes within the rule that, if a statute purporting to have been enacted to protect the public health, the public morals or the public safety, has no real or substantial relation to those objects, or is, beyond all question, a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law.” The statute was enacted in order to protect the health of bakers in New York and Harlan’s argument uses facts from scholars who have studied the particular effects of working in bakeshops in excessive amounts. He also gathered research on a global scale to compare the daily work times among men in different countries. He expresses that no one should be able to question the power of the state to pass this statute because its purpose is plain to see and not unauthorized by law. With all things considered, Harlan feels the courts should not interfere.

Dissenting Opinion (Holmes)

Justice Holmes was conflicted with the decision of the majority. He was concerned about the manner in which the decision was reached. Justice Holmes was convinced the majority sought to enforce freedom of contract without having the power to do so. Holmes argues that liberty is often infringed upon. He famously says “the Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.” He firmly believed that it was not the court’s place to strike down state laws to enforce a political goal or economic theory. Holmes goes further, calling the opinion of the court “tyrannical.”  He understands why people may think baking an unhealthy profession. For these reasons he was unable to side with the majority.

Full Text of Opinions

Decision Analysis

Significance/ Impact

Lochner v. New York is credited with being the Poster Child of what we now refer to as the “Lochner Era.” The Era is quite significant because it builds the framework through which we debate the use of police power, specifically the limits we place on personal freedoms through police power. Now, unfortunately, the Lochnerian school of thought has been used improperly in certain cases such as Adkins v. Chilren’s Hospital but it has definitely been used for the greater good, such as in Roe. v. Wade. Another great example that was just a few years ago was NFIB v. Sebelius. Hadley Arke was quoted saying, “Furthermore, substantive due process jurisprudence is based on Meyer v Neb, which is based on Lochner v. New York.” That being said, I think the best quote for summarizing Locher is by Hadley Arke again. “ Today is the day we firmly live in the Day of Lochner. This case is ridiculed, deridely the right as well as the left and get the structure of jurisprudence marked by the case is the structure that our judges, left, right, choose again, choose anew whenever they are faced with the need to choose.”

However, many argue how revolutionary the “Lochner Era” actually was. For starters, the Founders were adamant about limited government, especially with regards to individual freedoms. A perfect example of this is the Nine Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people, “ which simply means the Constitution or any laws created by power granted to applicable groups through the Constitution are not to be used to deny or limit rights retained by the people. In addition, at the time of the “Lochner Era,” both federal and state governments were creating legislation and regulation that stifled business. Combine that with laissez-faire justices and it’s only a matter of time before certain laws and regulations are going to be ruled unconstitutional. In conclusion, the idea of substantive due process was first brought into SCOTUS diction by Justice Stephen Fields in his dissents in the Slaughterhouse Cases and Mann v. Illinois, which were both decided before the classic beginning of the “Lochner Era,” Allgeyer v. Louisiana .

Timeline 2


Scholarly Commentary and Debate

Constitutional Provisions

Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Major Statutes under Review

Bakeshop Act of 1895

Part one of this law limited the amount of hours a baker could work to 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week. Part two said that the food preparation areas have proper plumbing and sewage. Part three stated, that if required by the factory inspector, have impermeable floors, walls with coating, and furniture and tools in a clean and safe organizational manner. Part four states that all food products be stored in a ventilated and dry area. Part five states that all washrooms be separate from food preparation areas. Part six states that sleeping areas must be separate from food preparation areas. Part seven states the fines associated with violating this law. Part eight states the inspector may have up to four deputies and states their salaries. Part nine states that the owners of said establishments will have sixty days to correct any violations found by the inspector or his deputies. Part ten states that this law will take effect immediately.

Important Precedents

Important Subsequent Cases

  • Muller v. Oregon (1908)
  • Prudential Ins. Co v. Cheek (1922)
  • Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923)
  • Meyer v. Nebraska (1923)
  • West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937)
  • Federal Housing Administration v. The Darlington, Inc. (1958)
  • Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
  • Sailors et al. v. Board of Education of the County of Kent et al. (1967)
  • Roe v. Wade (1973)
  • PruneYard Shopping Center v. Robins (1980)
  • Community Communications Co. v. Boulder (1982)
  • Walters v. National Association of Radiation Survivors (1985)
  • Rivera v. Minnich (1987)

Web Resources

“Landmark Cases: Lochner v. New York” PBS. Accessed September 10, 2016  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/capitalism/landmark_lochner.html

“Lochner v. New York” Casebriefs. Accessed September 10, 2016. http://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/constitutional-law/constitutional-law-keyed-to-cohen/the-due-process-contract-and-just-compensation-clauses-and-the-review-of-the-reasonableness-of-legislation/lochner-v-new-york-2/

“Lochner v. New York” The Free Dictionary. Accessed September 10, 2016                                                  http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Lochner+v.+New+York

“Lochner v. New York” Legal Information Institute. Accessed September 10, 2016. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/198/45

“Lochner v. New York” Onelbriefs, 2009. Accessed September 8, 2016.  http://www.onelbriefs.com/cases/conlaw/lochner_newyork.htm

“Lochner v. New York” Quimbee, September 6, 2015. Accessed September 10, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWJIoAGW2cw

“Lochner v. New York” Wikipedia, November 6, 2016. Accessed September 10, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lochner_v._New_York

“Lochner v. New York 198 U.S. 45 (1905)” Justia. Accessed September 10, 2016  https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/198/45/case.html

“Lochner v. People of State of New York”. Findlaw. Accessed September 10, 2016             http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/198/45.html

“Lochner v. People of the State of New York 198 U.S. 45 (1905)” Law2. Accessed September 10, 2016 http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/lochner.html

McBride, Alex. “Landmark Cases: Lochner v. New York (1905)” PBS: Supreme Court History, Capitalism and Conflict, December 2006. Accessed September 10, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/capitalism/landmark_lochner.html

“On The 100th Anniversary of Lochner v. New York” Heinonline. Accessed September 10, 2016. http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/tenn72&div=25&g_sent=1&collection=journals

“Supreme Court Landmark Case Lochner v. New York” C-span, October 26, 2015. Accessed September 10, 2016. https://www.c-span.org/video/?327713-1/supreme-court-landmark-case-lochner-v-new-york

Urofsky, Melvin. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Lochner v. New York”, accessed November 09, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/event/Lochner-v-New-York.

Waimburg, Joshua. “Lochner v. New York: Fundamental Rights and Economic Liberty.” Constitution Daily, October 26, 2015. Accessed September 21, 2016. http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2015/10/lochner-v-new-york-fundamental-rights-and-economic-liberty/.

Best Academic Books, Articles and Law Review

Bernstein, David. “Lochner v. New York: A Centennial Retrospective.” Washington University Law Review, 2005.

Bernstein, David. Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights against Progressive Reform. University of Chicago Press, 2012

Drakeman, Donald, and Earl Maltz. “Chapters 5 and 6.” Great Cases in Constitutional Law. Ed. Robert P. George. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000. 94-135. Print.

Gillman, Howard. The Constitution Besieged: The Rise and Demise of Lochner Era Police Powers Jurisprudence. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993. Print.
Kens, Paul. Lochner v. New York: Economic Regulation on Trial. University Press of Kansas, 1998


Fall 2016: Rosa Almonte, Jim Carlisle, Alana Cohen,  Nyasha Drakes, Matthew Higgins

Tasks for Future Contributors

Future Contributors should verify that the Bakeshop Act is the state laws under review. I would  also suggest that future contributors list this case and other Lochner Era cases as subsequent cases to the Dred Scott case since it was the first case to use substantive due process in the decision-making process. For the cases following the Lochner Era, it is worth noting that most cite Holmes’ dissent and no the majority opinion. Just be mindful of this and look closely at which portion of the Lochner case is being cited.