BACKGROUNDER ON THE COURT OPINION ON THE MULLER V. OREGON CASE
One main goal of the Progressive movement, which lasted from the late 1890s until World War I, was to ameliorate the worst aspects of industrialization -- fouling of the environment, abuse of workers, exploitation of consumers and corruption of the political process. Starting in the state legislatures, reformers passed a variety of statutes, including factory safety laws, workmen's compensation, minimum wages and maximum hours.
But conservatives were able to block some of these programs in the courts, where they appealed to a judiciary imbued with the notions that private property was sacrosanct and that legislatures should not be able to tell people how to use their property. Courts also sustained the notion of "liberty to contract," claiming that employers and employees should be able to negotiate without state interference. The courts did acknowledge that the state had an inherent police power, by which it could interfere with property and labor contracts in order to protect the health and safety of citizens.
But in the 1905 case of Lochner v. New York, a bare majority of the Supreme Court had ruled that a law limiting bakery workers to a ten-hour day was unconstitutional, because such a measure bore no relation to the workers' health or safety. The Court conceded, however, that such measures might be permissible if it could be shown that the law did in fact serve to protect health or safety.
When the state of Oregon established a ten-hour workday for women in laundries and factories, business owners attacked it on the grounds that, like the New York law, it bore no relation to the women's health or safety. To defend the law, Oregon turned to the noted Boston attorney Louis D. Brandeis, who had already won a reputation for defending the public interest. Brandeis seized upon the opening in Lochner, namely, that if he could show how the Oregon law related to worker health and safety, then the Court would have to sustain it. He de-vised a highly unusual brief. He covered the traditional legal precedents in just two pages, and then filled over 100 pages with sociological, economic and physiological data on the effect of long working hours on the health of women.
Justice Brewer's opinion not only acknowledged the brief, a highly unusual step, but conceded that women were in fact different from men, and thus needed this type of factory protection. Brandeis's strategy had worked, but it was a strategy for the times; he himself did not consider women inferior or subservient to men.
The most important result of the Brandeis brief and of the decision in this case is that it set the model for all future reformers attempting to use the law to affect social and political conditions. Muller democratized the law, in that it made it more open to the everyday facts of life; it called upon justices to take into account the effect of their decisions on the real world and on the lives of real people.
For further reading: Philippa Strum, Louis D. Brandeis: Justice for the People (1984); Alpheus T. Mason, "The Case of the Overworked Laundress," in Quarrels That Have Shaped the Constitution (1975).
MULLER V. OREGON (1908)
Justice Brewer delivered the opinion of the Court.
We held in Lochner v. New York (1905) that a law providing that no laborer shall be required or permitted to work in a bakery more than sixty hours in a week or ten hours in a day was not as to men a legitimate exercise of the police power of the State, but an unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract in relation to his labor, and as such was in conflict with, and void under, the Federal Constitution. That decision is invoked by plaintiff in error as decisive of the question before us. But this assumes that the difference between the sexes does not justify a different rule respecting a restriction of the hours of labor.
In patent cases counsel are apt to open the argument with a discussion of the state of the art. It may not be amiss, in the present case, before examining the constitutional question, to notice the course of legislation as well as expressions of opinion from other than judicial sources. In the brief filed by Mr. Louis D. Brandeis, for the defendant in error, is a very copious collection of all these matters...
The legislation and opinions referred to... may not be, technically speaking, authorities, and in them is little or no discussion of the constitutional question presented to us for determination, yet they are significant of a widespread belief that woman's physical structure, and the functions she performs in consequence thereof, justify special legislation restricting or qualifying the conditions under which she should be permitted to toil. Constitutional questions, it is true, are not settled by even a consensus of present public opinion, for it is the peculiar value of a written constitution that it places in unchanging form limitations upon legislative action, and thus gives a permanence and stability to popular government which otherwise would be lacking. At the same time, when a question of fact is debated and debatable, and the extent to which a special constitutional limitation goes is affected by the truth in respect to that fact, a widespread and long continued belief concerning it is worthy of consideration. We take judicial cognizance of all matters of general knowledge.
It is undoubtedly true, as more than once declared by this court, that the general right to contract in relation to one's business is part of the liberty of the individual, protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution; yet it is equally well settled that this liberty is not absolute and extending to all contracts, and that a State may, without conflicting with the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, restrict in many respects the individual's power of contract...
That woman's physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race...
The two sexes differ in structure of body, in the functions to be performed by each, in the amount of physical strength, in the capacity for long-continued labor, particularly when done standing, the influence of vigorous health upon the future well-being of the race, the self-reliance which enables one to assert full rights, and in the capacity to maintain the struggle for subsistence. This difference justifies a difference in legislation and upholds that which is designed to compensate for some of the burdens which rest upon her...
For these reasons, and without questioning in any respect the decision in Lochner v. New York, we are of the opinion that it cannot be adjudged that the act in question is in conflict with the Federal Constitution, so far as it respects the work of a female in a laundry.
Source: 208 U.S. 412 (1908)
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