West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish,
300 U.S. 379 (1937), argued 16–17 Dec. 1936, decided 29 Mar. 1937 by vote of 5 to 4; Hughes for the Court, Sutherland in dissent. In West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, the Supreme Court supposedly made “the switch in time that saved nine.” The decision was handed down less than two months after President Franklin D. *Roosevelt announced his plan to pack the Supreme Court with justices supportive of *New Deal economic regulation. Yet the circumstances surrounding the Parrish decision have made it seem more of a direct reaction to the *court-packing plan than it probably was.
Parrish heralded greater Supreme Court deference to economic regulation by upholding a Washington state minimum wage law for women. In doing so, the Court ratified a policy that many argued was desperately needed by underpaid women workers. However, because the minimum wage for women rested on a theory of women’s inequality, and because labor restrictions based on *gender interfered with women’s employment opportunities, many feminists opposed minimum wage laws.
In *Lochner v. New York (1905), the Court had struck down a statute restricting the number of hours bakers could work on the basis that it violated the *due process rights of employers and employees to freedom of *contract. In *Muller v. Oregon (1908), however, the Court had upheld a statute limiting the number of hours women could work under the theory that states had a greater interest in regulating the employment of women because their central role as childbearers meant that women’s health was essential to the well-being of future generations. The Court distinguished maximum hours legislation from minimum wage legislation, and ruled in *Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923) that a minimum wage law for women and children violated freedom of contract. Just one year before Parrish was decided, the Court had applied Adkins and struck down a minimum wage for women in *Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo (1936).
In Parrish, the Court overturned the Adkins decision. Chief Justice Charles Evans *Hughes, writing for a majority of five, argued that the concept of freedom of contract was not unlimited. “What is this freedom?” Hughes asked. “The Constitution does not speak of freedom of contract” (p. 391). The Constitution protected liberty, but subject to reasonable regulation in the interest of the community. Hughes found that state power to restrict freedom of contract was especially evident in the area of protective labor legislation for women. Relying on Muller, he argued that women’s physical structure and their role as mothers required that the state protect them in order to “preserve the strength and vigor of the race” (p. 394). Hughes could find no relevant difference between laws regulating hours and those regulating wages, and suggested that state legislatures could address the abuses of unconscionable employers who paid their workers less than a living wage. Hughes adopted a posture of deference to legislative judgment, suggesting that even if the wisdom of a policy was debatable, the legislature was entitled to enact it as long as it was not arbitrary or capricious.
Justice George *Sutherland wrote a vigorous dissent. He argued, in part, that women and men were equal under the law and that, consequently, legislation that treated them differently with respect to the right to contract constituted arbitrary discrimination.
Because Justice Owen *Roberts, who voted with the majority in Morehead, provided the fifth vote in Parrish, his role in the decision has received much attention. There has been much speculation as to whether Roberts switched his vote in response to President Roosevelt’s pressure. Two factors militate against such a conclusion. First, because the Morehead majority rested on very narrow grounds, Roberts could argue that he had not changed his position because he had never expressed an opinion on the substantive issue in Adkins. More important, a vote on Parrish was taken in December 1936, before the court-packing plan, and Roberts voted to sustain the minimum wage law. Consequently, the court-packing plan seems not to have directly affected Roberts’s vote. Harsh criticism of the Court preceded the (p. 1083) court-packing plan, however, so it remains likely that Roberts’s vote in Parrish was to some degree responsive to the concerns and pressures of the times.
See also due process, substantive.
Charles A. Leonard, A Search for a Judicial Philosophy: Mr. Justice Roberts and the Constitutional Revolution of 1937 (1971).
Mary L. Dudziak