Back in 1896
, the state of Utah
passed a law to set a maximum number of hours a laborer could work in smelter
s and ore reduction works. The precedents for this case were mixed: the "Slaughterhouse Cases
" of 1873 had ruled that a state has the power to police businesses, particularly on behalf of the health and well-being of its residents; however, recent writings favoring Lassiez-Faire Constitutionalism
particularly by judges Thomas Cooley
and Christopher Tiedeman
were reinterpreting the 14th Amendment
to provide much less power to state police power in business.
The abridged ruling favored the state of Utah's power to police business practices. The most fascinating point, in my opinion, is highlighted in bold:
Mr. Justice Brown...delivered the opinion of the court.
The validity of the statute in question is,...challenged upon the ground of an alleged violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, in that it abridges the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; deprives both the employer and the laborer of his propery without due process of law, and denies to them the equal protection of the laws.
...it is safe to say that a state law which undertakes to deprive any class of persons of the general power to acquire property would also be obnoxious to the same provision. Indeed, we may go a step further, and say that, as property can only be legally acquired as between living persons by contract, a general prohibition against entering the contracts with respect to property, or having as their object the acquisition of property, would be equally invalid...
We think the act in question may be sustained as a valid exercise of the police power of the State. The enactment does not profess to limit the hours of all workmen, but merely those who are employed in underground mines, or in the smelting, reduction or refining of ores or metals. These employments, when too long pursued, the legislature has judged to be detrimental to the health of the employees, and, so long as there are reasonable grounds for believing that this is so, its decision upon this subject can not be reviewed by the Federal courts.
While the general experience of mankind may justify us in believing that men may engage in ordinary employments more than eight hours per day without injury to their health, it does not follow that labor for the same length of time is innocuous when carried on beneath the surface of the earth, where the operative is deprived of fresh air and sunlight, and is frequently subjected to foul atmosphere and a very high temperature, or to the influence of noxious gases, generated by the processes of refining or smelting.
The legislature has also recognized the fact, which the experience of legislators in many States has corroborated, that the proprietors of these establishments and their operatives do not stand upon an equality, and that their interests are, to a certain extent, conflicting. The former naturally desire to obtain as much labor as possible from their employees, while the latter are often induced by the fear of discharge to conform to regulations which their judgment, fairly exercised, would pronounce to be detrimental to their health and strength. In other words, the proprietors lay down the rules and the laborers are practically constrained to obey them. In such cases self-interest is often an unsafe guide, and the legislature may properly interpose its authority.
It may not be improper to suggest in this connection that although the prosecution in this case was against the employer of labor, who apparently under the statute is the only one liable, his defence is not so much that his right to contract has been infringed upon, but that the act works a peculiar hardship to his employees, whose right to labor as long as they please is alleged to be thereby violated. The argument would certainly come with better grace and greater cogency from the latter class. But the fact that both parties are of full age and competent to contract does not necessarily deprive the State of the power to interfere where the parties do not stand upon an equality, or where the public health demands that one party to the contract shall be protected against himself. "The State still retains an interest in his welfare, however reckless he may be. The whole is no greater than the sum of all the parts, and when the individual health, safety, and welfare are sacrificed or neglected, the State must suffer."
We are of the opinion that the act in question was a valid exercise of the police power of the State, and the judgments of the Supreme court of Utah are, therefore,...
The implications of this case are entangled in a whole mess of laws giving and taking power away from state and federal government relating to business practices in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
"Holden v. Hardy." The U.S. Constitution and Nation. ed. Waldrep, Christopher et al. Forbes: USA. 1998. pp 361-362.