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Photo of the Metropolitan Hospital Infirmary Ward, 1900.
The Court's decision in Adkins v. Children's Hospital reaffirmed the basic holding of Lochner v. New York: that minimum wage laws violate a citizen's right to freely contract work. Above, the Metropolitan Hospital Infirmary Ward, 1900.

Reproduction courtesy of Harvard University, Fogg Museum
Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923)

In Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923), the Supreme Court ruled that a minimum wage law for women violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment because it abridged a citizen's right to freely contract labor. In 1918, the District of Columbia passed a law setting a minimum wage for women and children laborers. It set up a board to investigate current wages, solicit input on ideal wage levels, and ultimately set minimum wages. The law was designed to protect women and children "from conditions detrimental to their health and morals, resulting from wages which are inadequate to maintain decent standards of living." The board eventually set minimum wages for various industries, e.g., a minimum $16.50 per week "in a place where food is served" and $15 per week "in a laundry." The Children's Hospital of the District of Columbia, which employed many women at wages below those established by the board, sued the board on the grounds that its regulations violated liberty of contract as defined in Lochner v. New York (1905). The case reached the Supreme Court on appeal in 1923.

In a 5-3 decision written by Justice George Sutherland, the Court struck down the minimum wage law as unconstitutional, arguing that it violated the Due Process Clause of the Constitution's Fifth Amendment. The Court cited Lochner v. New York (1905) in maintaining that the clause gives citizens equal rights "to obtain from each other the best terms they can as the result of private bargaining." According to Justice Sutherland, the D. C. minimum wage law, by contrast, was "an arbitrary interference with the liberty of contract which no government can legally justify in a free land." The law was especially "arbitrary," argued the Court, because it imposed uniform minimum wages on all women regardless of their individual needs or occupations.

The Court also took issue with the provisions of the law which gave special protection to women over men. The Court claimed that, as of 1923, the civil inferiority of women in American society was at a "vanishing point," citing the recent passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended the right to vote to women, as an example of their newfound equality in American culture. Special workplace protections for women were thus unnecessary because women could protect their own interests through the political process and equal bargaining power.

Adkins v. Children's Hospital thus reaffirmed the basic holding of Lochner: minimum wage laws violate a citizen's right to freely contract work. Adkins was effectively overturned by West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937), which held that states could impose minimum wage regulations on private employers without violating the Due Process Clause. As long as they are rational and procedurally fair, minimum wage laws are a legitimate exercise of the state's police power.

AUTHOR'S BIO
Alex McBride is a third year law student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is articles editor on the TULANE LAW REVIEW and the 2005 recipient of the Ray Forrester Award in Constitutional Law. In 2007, Alex will be clerking with Judge Susan Braden on the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

Fletcher v. Peck U.S. v. E. C. Knight Swift and Co. v. U.S. Lochner v. New York Schenck v. U.S. Adkins v. Children's Hospital Schechter v. U.S. U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish view all landmark cases