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Adair v. United States


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208 U.S. 161 (1908), argued 29–30 Oct. 1907, decided 27 Jan. 1908 by vote of 7 to 2; Harlan for the Court, McKenna and Holmes in dissent. The Erdman Act of 1898 was enacted to prevent disruption of interstate commerce by labor disputes. It protected union members by prohibiting yellow dog contracts and the discharge or blacklisting of employees for union activity. An employer who discharged an employee for union membership challenged the constitutionality of the statute. Writing for the majority, Justice John Marshall Harlan posited equal bargaining power between employer and employee. He held the law to be an unreasonable invasion of personal liberty and property rights guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Relying on Fourteenth Amendment precedents, Harlan grafted the substantive conception of due process and freedom of contract onto the Fifth Amendment. He also found the act to be outside the scope of congressional commerce power. Ignoring the statute's legislative history, he asserted there was “no legal or logical connection” between union membership and interstate commerce (p. 178).

Justice Joseph McKenna in dissent called for judicial realism, whereas Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes echoed the position of restraint he had espoused in Lochner v. New York (1905): the legislature was the proper arbiter of public policy and could reasonably limit freedom of contract.

Conservatives extolled Adair for condemning “class legislation,” while Roscoe Pound thought it epitomized “mechanical jurisprudence,” the use of “technicalities and conceptualizations” to defeat the ends of justice. The precedent supported invalidation of state laws providing similar protections for unions (Coppage v. Kansas, 1915) until the New Deal era revolutionized labor-management relations.

Barbara C. Steidle

Subjects: Law.


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