Lochner v. New York

198 U.S. 45 (1905)

Quick Summary

New York involved Joseph Lochner (defendant), a bakery owner who challenged fines imposed under New York’s Bakershop Act. The state (plaintiff) sought to limit bakers’ working hours for health reasons.

The United States Supreme Court had to decide if this act was a proper use of state police powers or an unconstitutional breach of contract rights. Ultimately, the Court deemed it unconstitutional, emphasizing individual liberty over state-imposed labor restrictions.

Facts of the Case

In 1896, the New York legislature enacted the Bakershop Act, which limited bakers to a maximum of ten hours of work per day. Joseph Lochner (defendant), who owned a bakery in New York (plaintiff), was fined for allowing an employee to work beyond this limit. His conviction was affirmed by both the Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals in New York.

Ultimately, the case escalated to the United States Supreme Court, which granted certiorari to review the matter. This case centered around the conflict between an individual’s right to contract and the state’s authority to regulate labor conditions for the sake of public health.

The pertinent legal question was whether the Bakershop Act was a legitimate exercise of New York’s police powers or an unconstitutional infringement on the freedom of contract protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Joseph Lochner was fined under New York’s Bakershop Act for overworking an employee.
  2. The conviction was upheld by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court.
  3. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.
  4. The case was taken to the United States Supreme Court on certiorari.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the Bakershop Act, limiting bakers to no more than ten hours of work per day, is a valid exercise of New York’s police powers or an unconstitutional infringement on the freedom of contract under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Rule of Law

The Fourteenth Amendment protects individuals’ liberty to enter into contracts without undue interference by the state, unless such interference is justified by valid exercises of police powers concerning public health, safety, or welfare.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court analyzed whether the Bakershop Act represented a legitimate health regulation or an arbitrary interference with the right to contract. The majority opinion found no substantial or direct connection between the hours a baker works and the quality of bread produced, thereby questioning the act’s validity as a health law.

The Court argued that allowing this statute could lead to unrestricted state interference in private contracts across various occupations under the guise of public health protections.

The majority concluded that the act overstepped the bounds of New York’s police powers and infringed upon the constitutional right to free contract. It was determined that while states have broad police powers, these do not extend to arbitrary limitations on freedom of contract without clear and direct justification related to public health or welfare.


The Supreme Court reversed the judgments of the New York courts, concluding that the Bakershop Act was an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of contract under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Dissenting Opinions

Justices Harlan, White, and Day dissented, arguing that states have wide latitude under their police powers to enact laws protecting public health and safety, and that such laws should be upheld if enacted in good faith and with a direct connection to these interests.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Supreme Court held that states cannot arbitrarily interfere with private contracts under the pretense of exercising police powers without a clear and reasonable justification related to public health or welfare.
  2. This case established a precedent on the limits of state regulation over labor conditions and affirmed the protection of individuals’ right to contract as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
  3. The dissenting opinion highlighted a more deferential approach towards state legislation under police powers, emphasizing good faith and direct connection to public interests as sufficient for upholding such laws.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes a valid exercise of state police powers in regulating contract freedoms?

A valid exercise involves regulations safeguarding public health, safety, or welfare that have substantial relations to the objectives and do not go beyond what is reasonably necessary to address the issue. Regulations should not be arbitrary or discriminatory and should have clear and direct connections to these interests.

  • For example: A law requiring construction workers to wear safety helmets on-site is a valid exercise of police powers as it directly relates to worker safety.

How do courts determine if a regulation is an impermissible infringement on the freedom of contract?

Courts assess whether there is a legitimate government interest behind the regulation, whether there is a rational connection between the regulation and this interest, and whether the means used are not overly broad to accomplish the objective. The analysis also considers if the provision regulates an area traditionally subject to state control.

  • For example: A city ordinance that bans all street sales of merchandise as a way to address traffic congestion might be too broad if it impedes vendors from selling newspapers or flowers on sidewalks where they do not impede traffic.

What are the limitations on a state's ability to regulate labor conditions under its police powers?

Limitations include respecting the constitutional rights of individuals, such as the freedom of contract, and ensuring that regulations are neither arbitrary nor discriminatory. Additionally, labor conditions set by states must have actual and substantial relations to health, safety, or welfare objectives to avoid violating due process.

  • For example: A law that sets maximum working hours for transportation drivers can be a legitimate regulation for public safety, given the increased risk of accidents associated with driver fatigue.


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