Amdt14.S1.4.4.1 Liberty of Contract

Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; 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.

One of the most important concepts used during the ascendancy of economic due process was liberty of contract. The original idea of economic liberties was advanced by Justices Bradley and Field in the Slaughter-House Cases, 1 and elevated to the status of accepted doctrine in Allgeyer v. Louisiana,2 It was then used repeatedly during the early part of this century to strike down state and federal labor regulations. The liberty mentioned in that [Fourteenth] amendment means not only the right of the citizen to be free from the mere physical restraint of his person, as by incarceration, but the term is deemed to embrace the right of the citizen to be free in the enjoyment of all his faculties; to be free to use them in all lawful ways; to live and work where he will; to earn his livelihood by any lawful calling; to pursue any livelihood or avocation, and for that purpose to enter into all contracts which may be proper, necessary and essential to his carrying out to a successful conclusion the purposes above mentioned.3

The Court, however, did sustain some labor regulations by acknowledging that freedom of contract was a qualified and not an absolute right. . . . Liberty implies the absence of arbitrary restraint, not immunity from reasonable regulations and prohibitions imposed in the interests of the community. . . . In dealing with the relation of the employer and employed, the legislature has necessarily a wide field of discretion in order that there may be suitable protection of health and safety, and that peace and good order may be promoted through regulations designed to insure wholesome conditions of work and freedom from oppression.4

Still, the Court was committed to the principle that freedom of contract is the general rule and that legislative authority to abridge it could be justified only by exceptional circumstances. To serve this end, the Court intermittently employed the rule of judicial notice in a manner best exemplified by a comparison of the early cases of Holden v. Hardy5 and Lochner v. New York. 6 In Holden v. Hardy, 7 the Court, relying on the principle of presumed validity, allowed the burden of proof to remain with those attacking a Utah act limiting the period of labor in mines to eight hours per day. Recognizing the fact that labor below the surface of the earth was attended by risk to person and to health and for these reasons had long been the subject of state intervention, the Court registered its willingness to sustain a law that the state legislature had adjudged necessary for the preservation of health of employees, and for which there were reasonable grounds for believing that . . . [it was] supported by the facts.

Seven years later, however, a radically altered Court was predisposed in favor of the doctrine of judicial notice. In Lochner v. New York, 8 the Court found that a law restricting employment in bakeries to ten hours per day and 60 hours per week was not a true health measure, but was merely a labor regulation, and thus was an unconstitutional interference with the right of adult laborers, sui juris, to contract for their means of livelihood. Denying that the Court was substituting its own judgment for that of the legislature, Justice Peckham nevertheless maintained that whether the act was within the police power of the state was a question that must be answered by the Court. Then, in disregard of the medical evidence proffered, the Justice stated: In looking through statistics regarding all trades and occupations, it may be true that the trade of a baker does not appear to be as healthy as some other trades, and is also vastly more healthy than still others. To the common understanding the trade of a baker has never been regarded as an unhealthy one. . . . It might be safely affirmed that almost all occupations more or less affect the health. . . . But are we all, on that account, at the mercy of the legislative majorities?9

Justice Harlan, in dissent, asserted that the law was a health regulation, pointing to the abundance of medical testimony tending to show that the life expectancy of bakers was below average, that their capacity to resist diseases was low, and that they were peculiarly prone to suffer irritations of the eyes, lungs, and bronchial passages. He concluded that the very existence of such evidence left the reasonableness of the measure open to discussion and thus within the discretion of the legislature. The responsibility therefor rests upon the legislators, not upon the courts. No evils arising from such legislation could be more far-reaching than those that might come to our system of government if the judiciary, abandoning the sphere assigned to it by the fundamental law, should enter the domain of legislation, and upon grounds merely of justice or reason or wisdom annul statutes that had received the sanction of the people’s representatives. . . . [L]egislative enactments should be recognized and enforced by the courts as embodying the will of the people, unless they are plainly and palpably, beyond all question, in violation of the fundamental law of the Constitution.10

A second dissenting opinion, written by Justice Holmes, has received the greater measure of attention as a forecast of the line of reasoning the Court was to follow some decades later. This case is decided upon an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain. If it were a question whether I agreed with that theory, I should desire to study it further and long before making up my mind. But I do not conceive that to be my duty, because I strongly believe that my agreement or disagreement has nothing to do with the right of a majority to embody their opinions in law. It is settled by various decisions of this court that state constitutions and state laws may regulate life in many ways which we as legislators might think as injudicious or if you like as tyrannical as this, and which equally with this interfere with the liberty to contract. . . . The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics. . . . But a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory, whether of paternalism and the organic relation of the citizen to the State or of laissez faire. It is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar or novel and even shocking ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution. . . . I think that the word liberty in the Fourteenth Amendment is perverted when it is held to prevent the natural outcome of a dominant opinion, unless it can be said that a rational and fair man necessarily would admit that the statute proposed would infringe fundamental principles as they have been understood by the traditions of our people and our law.11

Justice Holmes did not reject the basic concept of substantive due process, but rather the Court’s presumption against economic regulation. 12 Thus, Justice Holmes whether consciously or not, was prepared to support, along with his opponents in the majority, a perpetual censorship over state legislation. The basic distinction, therefore, between the positions taken by Justice Peckham for the majority and Justice Holmes, for what was then the minority, was the use of the doctrine of judicial notice by the former and the doctrine of presumed validity by the latter.

Holmes' dissent soon bore fruit in Muller v. Oregon13 and Bunting v. Oregon, 14 which allowed, respectively, regulation of hours worked by women and by men in certain industries. The doctrinal approach employed was to find that the regulation was supported by evidence despite the shift in the burden of proof entailed by application of the principle of judicial notice. Thus, counsel defending the constitutionality of social legislation developed the practice of submitting voluminous factual briefs, known as Brandeis Briefs,15 replete with medical or other scientific data intended to establish beyond question a substantial relationship between the challenged statute and public health, safety, or morals. Whenever the Court was disposed to uphold measures pertaining to industrial relations, such as laws limiting hours of work, 16 it generally intimated that the facts thus submitted by way of justification had been authenticated sufficiently for it to take judicial cognizance thereof. On the other hand, whenever it chose to invalidate comparable legislation, such as enactments establishing a minimum wage for women and children, 17 it brushed aside such supporting data, proclaimed its inability to perceive any reasonable connection between the statute and the legitimate objectives of health or safety, and condemned the statute as an arbitrary interference with freedom of contract.

During the great Depression, however, the laissez faire tenet of self-help was replaced by the belief that it is peculiarly the duty of government to help those who are unable to help themselves. To sustain this remedial legislation, the Court had to extensively revise its previously formulated concepts of liberty under the Due Process Clause. Thus, the Court, in overturning prior holdings and sustaining minimum wage legislation, 18 took judicial notice of the demands for relief arising from the Depression. And, in upholding state legislation designed to protect workers in their efforts to organize and bargain collectively, the Court reconsidered the scope of an employer’s liberty of contract, and recognized a correlative liberty of employees that state legislatures could protect.

To the extent that it acknowledged that liberty of the individual may be infringed by the coercive conduct of private individuals no less than by public officials, the Court in effect transformed the Due Process Clause into a source of encouragement to state legislatures to intervene affirmatively to mitigate the effects of such coercion. By such modification of its views, liberty, in the constitutional sense of freedom resulting from restraint upon government, was replaced by the civil liberty which an individual enjoys by virtue of the restraints which government, in his behalf, imposes upon his neighbors.

Footnotes

  1.  83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36 (1873).
  2.  165 U.S. 578 (1897). Freedom of contract was also alluded to as a property right, as is evident in the language of the Court in Coppage v. Kansas, 236 U.S. 1, 14 (1915). Included in the right of personal liberty and the right of private property – partaking of the nature of each – is the right to make contracts for the acquisition of property. Chief among such contracts is that of personal employment, by which labor and other services are exchanged for money or other forms of property. If this right be struck down or arbitrarily interfered with, there is a substantial impairment of liberty in the long-established constitutional sense.
  3.  165 U.S. at 589.
  4.  Chicago, B. & Q. R.R. v. McGuire, 219 U.S. 549, 567, 570 (1911). See also Wolff Packing Co. v. Industrial Court, 262 U.S. 522, 534 (1923).
  5.  169 U.S. 366 (1898).
  6.  198 U.S. 45 (1905).
  7.  169 U.S. 366, 398 (1898).
  8.  198 U.S. 45 (1905).
  9.  198 U.S. at 59.
  10.  198 U.S. at 74 (quoting Atkin v. Kansas, 191 U.S. 207, 223 (1903)).
  11.  198 U.S. at 75-76.
  12.  Thus, Justice Holmes’ criticism of his colleagues was unfair, as even a rational and fair man would be guided by some preferences or economic predilections.
  13.  208 U.S. 412 (1908).
  14.  243 U.S. 426 (1917).
  15.  Named for attorney (later Justice) Louis Brandeis, who presented voluminous documentation to support the regulation of women’s working hours in Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908).
  16.  E.g., Muller v. Oregon; Bunting v. Oregon.
  17.  See, e.g., Adkins v. Children's Hospital, 261 U.S. 525 (1923).
  18.  West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937). Thus the National Labor Relations Act was declared not to interfere with the normal exercise of the right of the employer to select its employees or to discharge them. However, restraint of the employer for the purpose of preventing an unjust interference with the correlative right of his employees to organize was declared not to be arbitrary. NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1, 44, 45-46 (1937).