The Taft Court (1921–30)
In what decision did the Taft Court invalidate a minimum wage law?
The Court struck down a Washington, D.C., minimum wage law for women and children in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital of the District of Columbia (1923) by a 5–3 vote (Justice Brandeis did not participate in the case). The majority, in an opinion written by Justice George Sutherland, ruled that the law violated the liberty of contract rights of employer and employee. Sutherland reasoned that “freedom of contract is … the general rule and restraint the exception.” According to the majority, the minimum wage law imposes upon all employers, including “those whose bargaining power may be as weak as that of the employee.” The majority was far more concerned with the freedom of contract rights of employers than with any hardships possibly endured by workers with little bargaining power. Sutherland also relied on the recently enacted Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, as evidence that women did not need the special protection of this minimum-wage legislation.
Chief Justice William Howard Taft, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Justice Edward Sanford dissented, with Taft and Holmes writing opinions. Taft recognized that most of the time employees do not have equal bargaining power with their employers. He contended that the Court failed to rely on the Court’s 1908 decision in Muller v. Oregon (1908) in which the Fuller Court upheld a law that limited the hours of women workers. Holmes questioned the majority’s broad notion of liberty of contract, pointing out that many laws dealing with usury, statutes of frauds, Sunday laws, and others infringed on liberty of contract.