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

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Mr. Justice HOLMES, dissenting.

The question in this case is the broad one, Whether Congress can establish minimum rates of wages for women in the District of Columbia with due provision for special circumstances, or whether we must say that Congress had no power to meddle with the matter at all. To me, notwithstanding the deference due to the prevailing judgment of the Court, the power of Congress seems absolutely free from doubt. The end, to remove conditions leading to ill health, immorality and the deterioration of the race, no one would deny to be within the scope of constitutional legislation. The means are means that have the approval of Congress, of many States, and of those governments from which we have learned our greatest lessons. When so many intelligent persons, who have studied the matter more than any of us can, have thought that the means are effective and are worth the price it seems to me impossible to deny that the belief reasonably may be held by reasonable men. If the law encountered no other objection than that the means bore no relation to the end or that they cost too much I do not suppose that anyone would venture to say that it was bad. I agree, of course, that a law answering the foregoing requirements might be invalidated by specific provisions of the Constitution. For instance it might take private property without just compensation. But in the present instance the only objection that can be urged is found within the vague contours of the Fifth Amendment, prohibiting the depriving any person of liberty or property without due process of law. To that I turn.

The earlier decisions upon the same words in the Fourteenth Amendment began within our memory and went no farther than an unpretentious assertion of the liberty to follow the ordinary callings. Later that innocuous generality was expanded into the dogma, Liberty of Contract. Contract is not specially mentioned in the text that we have to construe. It is merely an example of doing what you want to do, embodied in the word liberty. But pretty much all law consists in forbidding men to do some things that they want to do, and contract is no more exempt from law than other acts. Without enumerating all the restrictive laws that have been upheld I will mention a few that seem to me to have interfered with liberty of contract quite as seriously and directly as the one before us. Usury laws prohibit contracts by which a man receives more than so much interest for the money that he lends. Statutes of frauds restrict many contracts to certain forms. Some Sunday laws prohibit practically all contracts during one-seventh of our whole life. Insurance rates may be regulated. German Alliance Ins. Co. v. Lewis, 233 U.S. 389, 34 Sup. Ct. 612, 58 L. Ed. 1011, L. R. A. 1915C, 1189. (I concurred in that decision without regard to the public interest with which insurance was said to be clothed. It seemed to me that the principle was general.) Contracts may be forced upon the companies. National Union Fire Ins. Co. v. Wanberg, 260 U.S. 71, 43 Sup. Ct. 32, 67 L. Ed. --, November 13, 1922. Employers of miners may be required to pay for coal by weight before screening. McLean v. Arkansas, 211 U.S. 539, 29 Sup. Ct. 206, 53 L. Ed. 315. Employers generally may be required to redeem in cash store orders accepted by their employees in payment. Knoxville Iron Co. v. Harbison, 183 U.S. 13, 22 Sup. Ct. 1, 46 L. Ed. 55. Payment of sailors in advance may be forbidden. Patterson v. The Eudora, 90 U.S. 169, 23 Sup. Ct. 821, 47 L. Ed. 1002. The size of a loaf of bread may be established. Schmidinger v. Chicago, 226 U.S. 578, 33 Sup. Ct. 182, 57 L. Ed. 364, Ann. Cas. 1914B, 284. The responsibility of employers to their employees may be profoundly modified. New York Central R. R. Co. v. White, 243 U.S. 188, 37 Sup. Ct. 247, 61 L. Ed. 667, L. R. A. 1917D, 1, Ann. Cas. 1917D, 629; Arizona Employers' Liability Cases, 250 U.S. 400, 39 Sup. Ct. 553, 63 L. Ed. 1058, 6 A. L. R. 1537. Finally women's hours of labor may be fixed, Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412, 28 Sup. Ct. 324, 52 L. Ed. 551, 13 Ann. Cas. 957; Riley v. Massachusetts, 232 U.S. 671, 679, 34 Sup. Ct. 469, 58 L. Ed. 788; Hawley v. Walker, 232 U.S. 718, 34 Sup. Ct. 479, 58 L. Ed. 813; 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; and the principle was extended to men with the allowance of a limited overtime to be paid for 'at the rate of time and one-half of the regular wage,' in Bunting v. Oregon, 243 U.S. 426, 37 Sup. Ct. 435, 61 L. Ed. 830, Ann. Cas. 1918A, 1043.

I confess that I do not understand the principle on which the power to fix a minimum for the wages of women can be denied by those who admit the power to fix a maximum for their hours of work. I fully assent to the proposition that here as elsewhere the distinctions of the law are distinctions of degree, but I perceive no difference in the kind or degree of interference with liberty, the only matter with which we have any concern, between the one case and the other. The bargain is equally affected whichever half you regulate. Muller v. Oregon, I take it, is as good law today as it was in 1908. It will need more than the Nineteenth Amendment to convince me that there are no differences between men and women, or that legislation cannot take those differences into account. I should not hesitate to take them into account if I thought it necessary to sustain this Act. Quong Wing v. Kirkendall, 223 U.S. 59, 63, 32 Sup. Ct. 192, 56 L. Ed. 350. But after Bunting v. Oregon, 243 U.S. 426, 37 Sup. Ct. 435, 61 L. Ed. 830, Ann. Cas. 1918A, 1043, I had supposed that it was not necessary, and that Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, 25 Sup. Ct. 539, 49 L. Ed. 937, 3 Ann. Cas. 1133, would be allowed a deserved repose.

This statute does not compel anybody to pay anything. It simply forbids employment at rates below those fixed as the minimum requirement of health and right living. It is safe to assume that women will not be employed at even the lowest wages allowed unless they earn them, or unless the employer's business can sustain the burden. In short the law in its character and operation is like hundreds of so-called police laws that have been upheld. I see no greater objection to using a Board to apply the standard fixed by the Act than there is to the other commissions with which we have become familiar or than there is to the requirement of a license in other cases. The fact that the statute warrants classification, which like all classifications may bear hard upon some individuals, or in exceptional cases, notwithstanding the power given to the Board to issue a special license, is no greater infirmity than is incident to all law. But the ground on which the law is held to fail is fundamental and therefore it is unnecessary to consider matters of detail.

The criterion of constitutionality is not whether we believe the law to be for the public good. We certainly cannot be prepared to deny that a reasonable man reasonably might have that belief in view of the legislation of Great Britain, Victoria and a number of the States of this Union. The belief is fortified by a very remarkable collection of documents submitted on behalf of the appellants, material here, I conceive, only as showing that the belief reasonably may be held. In Australia the power to fix a minimum for wages in the case of industrial disputes extendi g beyond the limits of any one State was given to a Court, and its President wrote a most interesting account of its operation. 29 Harv. Law Rev. 13. If a legislature should adopt what he thinks the doctrine of modern economists of all schools, that 'freedom of contract is a misnomer as applied to a contract between an employer and an ordinary individual employee,' Ibid. 25, I could not pronounce an opinion with which I agree impossible to be entertained by reasonable men. If the same legislature should accept his further opinion that industrial peace was best attained by the device of a Court having the above powers, I should not feel myself able to contradict it, or to deny that the end justified restrictive legislation quite as adequately as beliefs concerning Sunday or exploded theories about usury. I should have my doubts, as I have them about this statute-but they would be whether the bill that has to be paid for every gain, although hidden as interstitial detriments, was not greater than the gain was worth: a matter that it is not for me to decide.

I am of opinion that the statute is valid and that the decree should be reversed.