Lochner was one of the most controversial decisions in the Supreme Court's history, starting what is now known as the Lochner era. In the Lochner era, the Supreme Court invalidated scores of federal and state statutes that sought to regulate working conditions during the Progressive Era and the Great Depression. A typical criticism of the decision is that the Court discarded sound constitutional interpretation in favor of personal ideology, favoring property rights over the efforts of democratic majorities to enact economic regulations. This was reflected in Justice Holmes' dissent, in which he wrote that "[t]he Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics." This was a reference to a book in which Spencer advocated a strict libertarian philosophy.
During the quarter-century that followed Lochner, the Supreme Court generally upheld economic regulations, but also issued several rulings invalidating such regulations. The Court also began to use the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect personal (as opposed to purely property) rights, including freedom of speech and the right to send one's child to private school (which was the beginning of a line of cases interpreting privacy rights). The Lochner era is considered to have ended with West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937), in which the Supreme Court took a much broader view of the government's power to regulate economic activities.
Lochner chose to appeal his second conviction. However, the conviction was upheld by the Appellate Department of the New York Supreme Court in a 3-2 vote. Lochner appealed again to the New York Court of Appeals, where he lost by a 4-3 margin. After his defeat in the Court of Appeals (New York's highest court), Lochner took his case to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Lochner's appeal was based on the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which provides: "... nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." In a series of cases starting with Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the Supreme Court established that the due process clause is not merely a procedural guarantee, but also a "substantive" limitation on the type of control the government may exercise over individuals. Although this interpretation of the due process clause is a controversial one (see substantive due process), it had become firmly embedded in American jurisprudence by the end of the nineteenth century. Lochner argued that the "right to free contract" was one of the rights encompassed by substantive due process.
The Supreme Court had accepted the argument that the due process clause protected the right to contract seven years earlier, in Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897). However, the Court had acknowledged that the right was not absolute, but subject to the "police power" of the states. For example, Holden v. Hardy (1898), the Supreme Court upheld a Utah law setting an eight-hour work day for miners. In Holden, Justice Henry Brown wrote that while "the police power cannot be put forward as an excuse for oppressive and unjust legislation, it may be lawfully resorted to for the purpose of preserving the public health, safety, or morals." The issue facing the Supreme Court in Lochner v. New York was whether the Bakeshop Act represented a reasonable exercise of the state's police power.
Lochner's case was argued by Henry Weismann (who had ironically been one of the foremost advocates of the Bakeshop Act when he was Secretary of the Journeymen Bakers' Union). In his brief, Weismann decried the idea that "the treasured freedom of the individual ... should be swept away under the guise of the police power of the State." He denied New York's argument that the Bakeshop Act was a necessary health measure, claiming that the "average bakery of the present day is well ventilated, comfortable both summer and winter, and always sweet smelling."
The Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-4, ruled that the law limiting bakers' working hours did not constitute a legitimate exercise of police powers. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Justice Rufus Peckham. Peckham began by asserting that the Fourteenth Amendment protected an individual's "general right to make a contract in relation to his business." He acknowledged that the right was not absolute, referring disparagingly to the "somewhat vaguely termed police powers" of the state. At the same time, Peckham argued that the police power was subject to certain limitations; otherwise, he claimed, the Fourteenth Amendment would be meaningless, and states would be able to pass any law using the police power as a pretext. He asserted that it was the court's duty to determine whether legislation is "a fair, reasonable and appropriate exercise of the police power of the State, or ... an unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right of the individual ... to enter into those contracts in relation to labor which may seem to him appropriate."
The Attorney General of New York, Julius M. Mayer, had claimed in his brief that the government "has a right to safeguard a citizen against his own lack of knowledge." Peckham responded to this argument by writing that bakers "are in no sense wards of the State." He remarked that bakers "are ... able to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the State, interfering with their independence of judgment and of action."
Next, Peckham proceeded to disclaim the idea that long working hours posed a threat to the health of bakers. He addressed the argument with the following words: "To the common understanding, the trade of a baker has never been regarded as an unhealthy one." Although conceding the "possible existence of some small amount of unhealthiness," Justice Peckham contended that it was insufficient to justify interference from the state.
Hence, Peckham and his fellow Justices reached the conclusion that the New York law was not related "in any real and substantial degree to the health of the employees." Consequently, they held that the New York law was not a valid exercise of the state's police powers. Lochner's conviction was accordingly vacated.
In 1934 the Supreme Court decided Nebbia v. New York stating that there is no constitutionally protected fundamental right to freedom of contract. In 1937, the Supreme Court decided West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, which expressly overruled Adkins and implicitly signaled the end of the Lochner era. Although the Supreme Court did not explicitly overrule Lochner, it did agree to give more deference to the decisions of state legislatures. The Court sounded the death knell for economic substantive due process several years later in Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma (1955). In that case, a unanimous Supreme Court declared: "The day is gone when this Court uses the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down state laws, regulatory of business and industrial conditions, because they may be unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought."
In the post-Lochner era, the Supreme Court has applied a lower standard (rational basis test) in reviewing restrictions on economic liberty, but stricter standards in reviewing legislation impinging on personal liberties, especially privacy. A line of cases dating back to the 1923 opinion by Justice McReynolds in Meyer v. Nebraska (citing Lochner as establishing limits on the police power) has established a privacy right under substantive due process. More recently, in Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court held that a woman had a privacy right to determine whether or not to have an abortion. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey reaffirmed that right, though the Court no longer used the term "privacy" to describe it.
The Supreme Court's decision in Lochner v. New York has drawn the ire of some liberal and conservative legal scholars. For example, Robert Bork called the decision an "abomination". Similarly, Attorney General Edwin Meese said that the Supreme Court "ignored the limitations of the Constitution and blatantly usurped legislative authority." However, the decision has attracted defenders, including the libertarian Cato Institute, and scholars Richard Epstein and Randy Barnett who argue that Lochner was correct in its protection of individual economic liberty.