Adkins v. Children's Hospital of the District of Columbia/Dissent Taft

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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinions

Mr. CHIEF JUSTICE TAFT, dissenting.

I regret much to differ from the court in these cases.

The boundary of the police power beyond which its exercise becomes an invasion of the guaranty of liberty under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitutions is not easy to mark. Our court has been laboriously engaged in pricking out a line in successive cases. We must be careful, it seems to me, to follow that line as well as we can, and not to depart from it by suggesting a distinction that is formal rather than real.

Legislatures in limiting freedom of contract between employee and employer by a minimum wage proceed on the assumption that employees, in the class receiving least pay, are not upon a full level of equality of choice with their employer and in their necessitous circumstances are prone to accept pretty much anything that is offered. They are peculiarly subject to the overreaching of the harsh and greedy employer. The evils of the sweating system and of the long hours and low wages which are characteristic of it are well known. Now, I agree that it is a disputable question in the field of political economy how far a statutory requirement of maximum hours or minimum wages may be a useful remedy for these evils, and whether it may not make the case of the oppressed employee worse than it was before. But it is not the function of this court to hold congressional acts invalid simply because they are passed to carry out economic views which the court believes to be unwise or unsound.

Legislatures which adopt a requirement of maximum hours or minimum wages may be presumed to believe that when sweating employers are prevented from paying unduly low wages by positive law they will continue their business, abating that part of their profits, which were wrung from the necessities of their employees, and will concede the better terms required by the law, and that while in individual cases, hardship may result, the restriction will inure to the benefit of the general class of employees in whose interest the law is passed, and so to that of the community at large.

The right of the Legislature under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to limit the hours of employment on the score of the health of he employee, it seems to me, has been firmly established. As to that, one would think, the line had been pricked out so that it has become a well formulated rule. In Holden v. Hardy, 169 U.S. 366, 18 Sup. Ct. 383, 42 L. Ed. 780, it was applied to miners and rested on the unfavorable environment of employment in mining and smelting. In Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, 25 Sup. Ct. 539, 49 L. Ed. 937, 3 Ann. Cas. 1133, it was held that restricting those employed in bakeries to 10 hours a day was an arbitrary and invalid interference with the liberty of contract secured by the Fourteenth Amendment. Then followed a number of cases beginning with Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412, 28 Sup. Ct. 324, 52 L. Ed. 551, 13 Ann. Cas. 957, sustaining the validity of a limit on maximum hours of labor for women to which I shall hereafter allude, and following these cases came Bunting v. Oregon, 243 U.S. 426, 37 Sup. Ct. 435, 61 L. Ed. 830, Ann. Cas. 1918A, 1043. In that case, this court sustained a law limiting the hours of labor of any person, whether man or woman, working in any mill, factory, or manufacturing establishment to 10 hours a day with a proviso as to further hours to which I shall hereafter advert. The law covered the whole field of industrial employment and certainly covered the case of persons employed in bakeries. Yet the opinion in the Bunting Case does not mention the Lochner Case. No one can suggest any constitutional distinction between employment in a bakery and one in any other kind of a manufacturing establishment which should make a limit of hours in the one invalid, and the same limit in the other permissible. It is impossible for me to reconcile the Bunting Case and the Lochner Case, and I have always supposed that the Lochner Case was thus overruled sub silentio. Yet the opinion of the court herein in support of its conclusion quotes from the opinion in the Lochner Case as one which has been sometimes distinguished but never overruled. Certainly there was no attempt to distinguish it in the Bunting Case.

However, the opinion herein does not overrule the Bunting Case in express terms, and therefore. I assume that the conclusion in this case rests on the distinction between a minimum of wages and a maximum of hours in the limiting of liberty to contract. I regret to be at variance with the court as to the substance of this distinction. In absolute freedom of contract the one term is as important as the other, for both enter equally into the consideration given and received, a restriction as to one is not any greater in essence than the other, and is of the same kind. One is the multiplier and the other the multiplicand.

If it be said that long hours of labor have a more direct effect upon the health of the employee than the low wage, there is very respectable authority from close observers, disclosed in the record and in the literature on the subject quoted at length in the briefs that they are equally harmful in this regard. Congress took this view and we cannot say it was not warranted in so doing.

With deference to the very able opinion of the court and my brethren who concur in it, it appears to me to exaggerate the importance of the wage term of the contract of employment as more inviolate than its other terms. Its conclusion seems influenced by the fear that the concession of the power to impose a minimum wage must carry with it a concession of the power to fix a maximum wage. This, I submit, is a non sequitur. A line of distinction like the one under discussion in this case is, as the opinion elsewhere admits, a matter of degree and practical experience and not of pure logic. Certainly the wide difference between prescribing a minimum wage and a maximum wage could as a matter of degree and experience be easily affirmed.

Moreover, there are decisions by this court which have sustained legislative limitations in respect to the wage term in contracts of employment. In McLean v. Arkansas, 211 U.S. 539, 29 Sup. Ct. 206, 53 L. d. 315, it was held within legislative power to make it unlawful to estimate the graduated pay of miners by weight after screening the coal. In Knoxville Iron Co. v. Harbison, 183 U.S. 13, 22 Sup. Ct. 1, 46 L. Ed. 55, it was held that stores orders issued for wages must be redeemable in cash. In Patterson v. Bark Eudora, 190 U.S. 169, 23 Sup. Ct. 821, 47 L. Ed. 1002, a law forbidding the payment of wages in advance was held valid. A like case is Strathearn S. S.C.o. v. Dillon, 252 U.S. 348, 40 Sup. Ct. 350, 64 L. Ed. 607. While these did not impose a minimum on wages, they did take away from the employee the freedom to agree as to how they should be fixed, in what medium they should be paid, and when they should be paid, all features that might affect the amount or the mode of enjoyment of them. The first two really rested on the advantage the employer had in dealing with the employee. The third was deemed a proper curtailment of a sailor's right of contract in his own interest because of his proneness to squander his wages in port before sailing. In Bunting v. Oregon, supra, employees in a mill, factory, or manufacturing establishment were required if they worked over 10 hours a day to accept for the 3 additional hours permitted not less than 50 per cent, more than their usual wage. This was sustained as a mild penalty imposed on the employer to enforce the limitation as to hours; but it necessarily curtailed the employee's freedom to contract to work for the wages he saw fit to accept during those 3 hours. I do not feel, therefore, that either on the basis of reason, experience, or authority, the boundary of the police power should be drawn to include maximum hours and exclude a minimum wage.

Without, however, expressing an opinion that a minimum wage limitation can be enacted for adult men, it is enough to say that the case before us involves only the application of the minimum wage to women. If I am right in thinking that the Legislature can find as much support in experience for the view that a sweating wage has as great and as direct a tendency to bring about an injury to the health and morals of workers, as for the view that long hours injure their health, then I respectfully submit that Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412, 28 Sup. Ct. 324, 52 L. Ed. 551, 13 Ann. Cas. 957, controls this case. The law which was there sustained forbade the employment of any female in any mechanical establishment or factory or laundry for more than 10 hours. This covered a pretty wide field in women's work, and it would not seem that any sound distinction between that case, and this can be built up on the fact that the law before us applies to all occupations of women with power in the board to make certain exceptions. Mr. Justice Brewer, who spoke for the court in Muller v. Oregon, based its conclusion on the natural limit to women's physical strength and the likelihood that long hours would therefore injure her health, and we have had since a series of cases which may be said to have established a rule of decision. Riley v. Massachusetts, 232 U.S. 671, 34 Sup. Ct. 469, 58 L. Ed. 788; Miller v. Wilson, 236 U.S. 373, 35 Sup. Ct. 342, 59 L. Ed. 628, L. R. A. 1915F, 829; Bosley v. McLaughlin, 236 U.S. 385, 35 Sup. Ct. 345, 59 L. Ed. 632. The cases covered restrictions in wide and varying fields of employment and in the later cases it will be found that the objection to the particular law was based, not on the ground that it had general application, but because it left out some employments.

I am not sure from a reading of the opinion whether the court thinks the authority of Muller v. Oregon is shaken by the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment. The Nineteenth Amendment did not change the physical strength or limitations of women upon which the decision in Muller v. Oregon rests. The amendment did give women political power and makes more certain that legislative provisions for their protection will be in accord with their interests as they see them. But I do not think we are warra ted in varying constitutional construction based on physical differences between men and women, because of the amendment.

But for my inability to agree with some general observations in the forcible opinion of Mr. Justice HOLMES, who follows me, I should be silent and merely record my concurrence in what he says. It is perhaps wiser for me, however, in a case of this importance separately to give my reasons for dissenting.

I am authorized to say that Mr. Justice SANFORD concurs in this opinion.