Lochner Era - Ending


See also: The switch in time that saved nine

The Lochner era is usually considered to have ended with the overturning of Adkins v. Children's Hospital in the 1937 case of West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish. An often-cited account explaining the ending is that the Supreme Court bowed to political pressure after President Roosevelt's announcement of a legislative proposal to enlarge the Court. The Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 would have allowed for the President to appoint an additional Justice, up to a maximum of six, for every sitting member over the age of 70½. The official reason for the bill was that the older Justices were unable to handle the increasing workload; but it was widely recognized that the real purpose was to obtain favorable rulings on New Deal legislation that had previously been ruled unconstitutional. In West Coast Hotel, Justice Owen Roberts, who had previously voted to strike down similar legislation, joined the wing more sympathetic to the New Deal and upheld a Washington state law setting a minimum wage for women. Roberts' move came to be known as "the switch in time that saved nine" as Roosevelt's court-packing plan ultimately failed.

Chief Justice Hughes, however, wrote in his autobiographical notes that Roosevelt's court reform proposal "had not the slightest effect on our decision," but due to the delayed announcement of its decision the Court was characterized as retreating under fire. Roosevelt also believed that because his re-election showed that the American people sided with the New Deal, Hughes was able to persuade Roberts to no longer base his votes on his own political beliefs and side with him in future cases regarding New Deal related policies.

This traditional interpretation of events has been disputed. Barry Cushman, in the book Rethinking the New Deal Court: The Structure of a Constitutional Revolution, argues that the real shift occurred in Nebbia v. New York (1934), in which the Court by a one-vote majority upheld state legislation regulating the price of milk. In Cushman's view, the laissez-faire constitutionalism that had been the distinctive feature of the Lochner era eroded after World War I as high unemployment made the regulation of labor relations an increasingly pressing concern. This development was accompanied by an evolving view of Congress' power under the Commerce Clause to regulate in the public interest. Gradually, the Court came to view the regulation of a previously delimited private sphere as a valid exercise of police power, and the decision in Nebbia signaled the undoing of a doctrinal distinction between public and private enterprise that had been the underlying principle for a free market approach to constitutional interpretation. Cushman contends, then, that the true cause for the demise of the Lochner era was not short-term political considerations by the Court, but an evolving judicial perspective on the validity of governmental regulation.

Alan J. Meese has pointed out that several members of the Court, even after the decision in West Coast Hotel, continued to apply Lochnerian premises. The decision did not overrule Lochner v. New York or any other liberty of occupation case not involving an attempt to require employers to pay a subsistence wage. It was not until Roosevelt began appointing new Justices, starting with Hugo Black in August 1937, that a majority was formed which completely rejected Lochnerian reasoning. In United States v. Carolene Products Co. (1938), the Court held that the constitutional authority of state and federal legislatures over economic matters is plenary, and that laws passed to regulate such matters are entitled to a presumption of constitutionality. Black, in a 1949 opinion upholding a state law prohibiting union discrimination, wrote that the Court by then had repudiated "the Allgeyer-Lochner-Adair-Coppage constitutional doctrine".

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