Morehead v. New York Ex Rel. Tipaldo

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298 U.S. 587 (1936), argued 28–29 Apr. 1936, decided 1 June 1936 by vote of 5 to 4; Butler for the Court, Hughes, Stone, Brandeis, and Cardozo in dissent. Perhaps the most unpopular decision of the 1935–1936 Supreme Court term was Morehead, in which a narrow majority struck down a New York minimum-wage law for women and children.

Speaking for the five-member majority, Justice Pierce Butler maintained that the right to contract for wages in return for work “is part of the liberty protected by the due process clause [of the Fourteenth Amendment]” (p. 610). He further argued that a state government should not be permitted to interfere with any contracts for labor. Justice Butler was joined in his Morehead majority by the three other conservative justices on the Court—James McReynolds, George Sutherland, and Willis Van Devanter—and by the quixotic Justice Owen J. Roberts.

In response to Butler's bald assertion that a state was powerless to enact minimum wage legislation—even in the throes of the Great Depression—one of the dissenters, Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, accused the majority of acting on the basis of their “personal economic predilections” (p. 587) and submitted that “there is grim irony in speaking of the freedom of contract of those who, because of their economic necessities, give their services for less than is needful to keep body and soul together” (p. 632).

All but 10 of the 344 newspaper editorials written in response to the Morehead decision attacked it. Even the Republican Party Platform of 1936 repudiated the decision, as did the Court in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937).

John W. Johnson

Subjects: Law.

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