The mythology of Lochner v. New York

In the highly competitive world of most misunderstood Supreme Court decisions, Lochner v. New York sits high on the list. The reason is simple enough: it has undergone a transcendent ascent to the world of abstraction, where it now embodies the platonic essence of a black-robed cadre of old, straight, white men hankering to smash the plebeian’s face in the dirt.

Yesterday, the Intelligencer–a publication of New York Magazine–dragged out these old tropes with the galumphing rhetoric typical of someone simply parroting a battered playbook with no real concern for its accuracy. The article is entitled, “Conservatives Want a ‘Republic’ to Protect Privileges.” Its basic premise is to push back against the anti-democratic tendencies of those who oppose direct, untrammeled democracy.

The article lists several “limitations on democracy to justify and even expand privilege.” The second references the conservative legal movement’s supposed attempt to resurrect the “Lochner era,” in order to protect the wealthy from democratic majorities.

First, off, it’s wrong to say that the “conservative legal movement” wants to revive Lochner. Both progressive and conservative jurists are generally united in their rejection of Lochner. Robert Bork, a thoroughly majoritarian conservative, railed against the case, as did Justice Antonin ScaliaGranted, this is because the conservative legal movement, sadly, has largely embraced the progressive juridical project of the 30’s, which was devoted to weakening the judiciary in order to shove the New Deal down the nation’s throat.

Second, Lochner‘s many detractors almost never grapple with the facts of the case. As a result, they frequently misunderstand it. Here’s what actually happened. In the early 1900’s, New York enacted a nitpicky law that saddled bakeries with an avalanche of finite requirements–limits on ceiling heights, limits on the kind of floor, and the demand to whitewash the walls every three months, among other things. But the provision dealt with in Lochner was this: “No employee shall be required or permitted to work in a biscuit, bread or cake bakery or confectionary establishment than 60 hours in one week or more than 10 hours in any one day.”

A Bavarian immigrant named Joseph Lochner who owned a Utica bakery was criminally indicted for violating this law. Aman Schmitter, another immigrant, lived with his family above the bakery and worked for Joseph. Aman happily worked over sixty hours a week in order to care for his family and increase his skills, and he said so in a sworn affidavit.

It is undisputed that New York’s law was not about health, safety, or protecting workers, though New York tried to say so at the time. Rather, New York passed the law at the behest of powerful bakeries and baker unions in a patent attempt to crush small, family-owned bakeries that relied upon flexible work schedules. It gets worse–the law intentionally targeted immigrant bakeries in particular, which tended to be of the small variety that leaned on overtime. The state’s legal brief contained a detestable line that progressives today would certainly associate with Trump: “there have come to [New York] great numbers of foreigners with habits which must be changed.” This is the law that progressives who hate Lochner are defending.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court thankfully struck down this law that was passed to serve the powerful and crush a weak immigrant population. Put that way, it seems startling that anyone today would wish to stand up for this piece of anti-immigrant, protectionist garbage.

But then again, Lochner is no longer about Lochner. It’s about rejecting a mythical “Lochner era.” Progressives believe that Lochner represented an entire ecosystem of turn-of-the-century jurisprudence in which corrupt judges were smothering the will of the people wholesale. Turns out that era never existed. Law professor David Bernstein has examined old court records concerning state exercises of their police power during that time period and found that there simply was no lengthy period in which courts were whack-a-moling every piece of social legislation that dared to lift its head.

To the extent that courts of that era did strike down social legislation under the liberty of contract, they did so not to serve the wealthy, but to protect weak minorities–which is of course why robust judicial review exists in the first place. For instance, the Illinois state supreme court struck down a deeply misogynistic law limiting women’s maximum work hours. The Court used the same liberty-of-contract reasoning as Lochner, arguing that women “are entitled to the same rights under the Constitution to make contracts with reference to their labor as are secured thereby to men.” And in Bailey v. Alabama, the wicked Lochner Court struck down a Jim Crow law that created a presumption of fraud when a worker quit after getting an advance payment. The law was aimed at penalizing black workers–an attempt essentially to revive peonage. Do progressives really want to own up to disagreeing with these “Lochner era” precedents? Somehow I doubt it.

Lochner did not, as Lochner‘s enemies love to claim, replace the legislature’s judgment with the judgment of the Court. Instead, the Court was willing to look skeptically at the legislature’s motives and demand that the legislature do its work and show that a law burdening a basic right is necessary. The New York law failed that test spectacularly.

Of course, Lochner‘s legacy does demand that courts counter democratic will when it conflicts with fundamental rights. Alexander Bickel famously called this the counter-majoritarian difficulty, something that has preoccupied the judiciary for a century. If you really care about minorities, though, you might consider Judge Janice Rogers Brown’s insight: “But the better view may be that the Constitution created the countermajoritarian difficulty in order to thwart more potent threats to the Republic: the political temptation to exploit the public appetite for other people’s money–either by buying consent with broad-based entitlements or selling subsidies, licensing restrictions, tariffs, or price fixing regimes to benefit narrow special interests.”

In any case, if progressives continue to take a polly-anna view of unfettered democracy despite the evidence, they should at least bother to get the facts right on Lochner.

 

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