An 1895 law called the Bakeshop Act prohibited New Yorkers from working in a bakery more than 10 hours in one day or 60 hours per week and made it a criminal offense to employ a worker for more than 60 hours a week. Although presented as a health measure, the maximum-hours law contained a number of suspicious exemptions, such as not applying to bakers who worked in pie bakeries, hotel and restaurant kitchens, clubs or boarding houses. More plausibly, the law was the product of a zealous lobbying effort on the part of large factory bakeries and their unionized staff who sought to limit competition from recent immigrants who made up for their lack of mechanized facilities by working longer hours. Joseph Lochner was convicted under the act for permitting an employee to work longer than 60 hours in one week. He challenged the law under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the maximum-hours restriction violated the Due Process Clause. The Court found that the law unreasonably restricted workers’ freedom of contract—a freedom with deep roots in the common law—without any legitimate purpose. The Court recognized public health and safety as legitimate interests, but it concluded that the state failed to show that the hours restriction actually did, or was even designed to, further those interests. As Justice Peckham explained, “It is impossible for us to shut our eyes to the fact that many of the laws of this character, while passed under what is claimed to be the police power for the purpose of protecting the public health or welfare, are, in reality, passed from other motives. We are justified in saying so when, from the character of the law and the subject upon which it legislates, it is apparent that the public health or welfare bears but the most remote relation to the law.”