In lieu of posting the ten most influential albums of my formative years, I'm posting ten judicial opinions that have shaped my view of constitutional law. My fourth case is West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937).
First, a bit of constitutional history. In 1905, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Joseph Lochner, a bakery owner in Utica, New York, who required his employees to work more than 60 hours per week in violation of state labor laws. The Court held that such restrictions on Lochner’s right to contract with his employees violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Over the next three decades—often referred to as the “Lochner Era”—the Supreme Court struck down dozens of commercial regulations as unconstitutional, including much of the legislation enacted as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The Court was deeply divided in the 1930s, not unlike today. Justices Brandeis, Cardozo, and Stone looked favorably on the New Deal. Justices Butler, McReynolds, Sutherland, and Van Devanter—whom the press dubbed “The Four Horsemen”—consistently voted against the president’s proposals. Justice Owen Roberts and Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes comprised the swing vote. Following his landslide reelection in November 1936, a frustrated President Roosevelt threatened to add more justices to the Supreme Court to dilute the votes of those who opposed him.
It was against this backdrop that West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish came before the Court. Elsie Parrish, a housekeeper at the West Coast Hotel, sued her employer for the difference between what she had been paid by her employer and what she was owed under Washington state’s “Minimum Wages for Women Act.” The West Coast Hotel argued that it did not owe Parrish any more salary because the minimum wage statute violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment under Lochner v. New York.
Chief Justice Hughes sided with Brandeis, Cardozo, and Stone to uphold the law. Predictably, Butler, McReynolds, Sutherland, and Van Devanter all voted to strike it down. Justice Roberts had the deciding vote. He had signaled his intention to strike down the law initially when he voted with the Four Horsemen to hear the case. Following Roosevelt’s reelection and the introduction of legislation to effect the president’s “court-packing plan,” however, Justice Roberts had a mysterious change of heart. Siding with the Court’s more liberal wing, Roberts voted to uphold the minimum wage law.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Hughes observed that “freedom of contract is a qualified, and not an absolute, right. There is no absolute freedom to do as one wills or to contract as one chooses. The guaranty of liberty does not withdraw from legislative supervision that wide department of activity which consists of the making of contracts, or deny to government the power to provide restrictive safeguards. Liberty implies the absence of arbitrary restraint, not immunity from reasonable regulations and prohibitions imposed in the interests of the community.”
Turning to the particulars of the case, Chief Justice Hughes explained, “if the protection of women is a legitimate end of the exercise of state power, how can it be said that the requirement of the payment of a minimum wage fairly fixed in order to meet the very necessities of existence is not an admissible means to that end? The Legislature of the state was clearly entitled to consider the situation of women in employment, the fact that they are in the class receiving the least pay, that their bargaining power is relatively weak, and that they are the ready victims of those who would take advantage of their necessitous circumstances.…
"The Legislature had the right to consider that its minimum wage requirements would be an important aid in carrying out its policy of protection. The adoption of similar requirements by many states evidences a deep-seated conviction both as to the presence of the evil and as to the means adapted to check it. Legislative response to that conviction cannot be regarded as arbitrary or capricious and that is all we have to decide. Even if the wisdom of the policy be regarded as debatable and its effects uncertain, still the Legislature is entitled to its judgment.” West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish signaled the end of the Lochner Era, reinvigorated the New Deal, and secured the “rational basis test” as the standard for determining the constitutionality of economic regulations. It also preserved the Court’s nine-justice structure by obviating President Roosevelt’s court-packing plan—a move one humorist described as “the switch in time that saved nine.”