Holden v. Hardy

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169 U.S. 366 (1898), argued 21 Oct. 1897, decided 28 Feb. 1898 by vote of 6 to 2; Brown for the Court, Brewer and Peckham in dissent, Field retired. To challenge his conviction for violating a Utah statute that prohibited employment of workers in mines for more than eight hours a day, Albert F. Holden initiated this habeas corpus proceeding against the sheriff, Harvey Hardy. Holden contended that the statute deprived him of freedom to contract with employees and violated three provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment: privileges or immunities, due process, and equal protection. The Supreme Court rejected these arguments, treating them as a single contention.

Justice Henry Billings Brown accepted the importance of freedom of contract. He emphasized, however, that the right was subject to limitation by a state's police power to protect the health, safety, or morals of its citizens. The Fourteenth Amendment, in his view, was not intended to inhibit severely the evolution of the states’ exercise of powers to protect their citizens, because law was “to a certain extent a progressive science” (p. 385). Obscured by that sweeping pronouncement was Brown's pivotal conclusion that there was a reasonable basis in fact to support the legislature's judgment about the danger of mining. In spite of the opinion's recognition of state power, the real import of the decision lies in the implication that the Court would assess the reasonableness of any regulatory statute. The significance became apparent when the Court subsequently struck down a statute regulating the hours worked by bakers in Lochner v. New York (1905). Thus, in spite of its apparent support for state experimentation, Holden actually foreshadowed a period of active judicial supervision of economic legislation.

Walter F. Pratt, Jr.

Subjects: Law.

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