Lochner Era - Origins

Origins

The causes of the Lochner era have been the subject of debate. Matthew J. Lindsay, writing in the Harvard Law Review, recounts the longstanding "progressive" view which became dominant in the decades following the New Deal:

According to progressive scholars, American judges steeped in laissez-faire economic theory, who identified with the nation’s capitalist class and harbored contempt for any effort to redistribute wealth or otherwise meddle with the private marketplace, acted on their own economic and political biases to strike down legislation that threatened to burden corporations or disturb the existing economic hierarchy. In order to mask this fit of legally unjustified, intellectually dishonest judicial activism, the progressive interpretation runs, judges invented novel economic “rights” — most notably “substantive due process” and “liberty of contract” — that they engrafted upon the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Cass R. Sunstein, in an influential essay from 1987, describes the Lochner era as the result of a Court which believed market ordering under common law to be part of nature rather than a legal construct and sought to preserve natural distribution of wealth against redistributive regulations:

The Lochner Court required government neutrality and was skeptical of government “intervention”; it defined both notions in terms of whether the state had threatened to alter the common law distribution of entitlements and wealth, which was taken to be a part of nature rather than a legal construct. Once the common law system came to be seen as a product of legal rules, the baseline from which constitutional decisions were made had to shift. When the Lochner framework was abandoned in West Coast Hotel, the common law system itself appeared to be a subsidy to employers. The West Coast Hotel Court thus adopted an alternative baseline and rejected Lochner era understandings of neutrality and action.

Howard Gillman, in the book The Constitution Besieged: The Rise & Demise of Lochner Era Police Powers Jurisprudence, argues that the decisions of the era can be understood as adhering to a constitutional tradition rooted in the Founding Fathers' conception of appropriate and inappropriate policymaking in a commercial republic. A central tenet of this tradition was that government should not exhibit favoritism or hostility toward market competitors (referred to as "class legislation", which Gillman equates with the modern notion of special interests), and that it should exercise its police power in a neutral manner so as not to benefit one class over another. This would make for a faction free republic, with the underlying assumption that the American economy could provide for all citizens and social dependency as had been observed in Europe could be avoided. These ideas, according to Gillman, had been inherited by the Lochnerian judges, whose jurisprudence reflected a good faith attempt to preserve a tradition that was increasingly being undermined by changing industrial relations in the United States.

This view has been criticized by David E. Bernstein, who claims that Gillman overstates the importance of class legislation on the jurisprudence. Bernstein has also criticized Sunstein's thesis, arguing in part that the notion of a common law baseline runs counter to numerous decisions in which the Court upheld statutory replacements of common law rules, notably in the field of workers' compensation. Bernstein's view is that the Lochner era demonstrates "the Justices' belief that Americans had fundamental unenumerated constitutional rights" which were protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In discovering these rights, "he Justices had a generally historicist outlook, seeking to discover the content of fundamental rights through an understanding of which rights had created and advanced liberty among the Anglo-American people."

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