The Lochner Era refers to a period of history in the United States characterized by strong judicial protections for economic liberties, especially freedom of contract. The period takes its name from a landmark case, Lochner v. New York, 198 US 45 (1905), in which the Supreme Court struck down labor regulations based on the court’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.
The Lochner Era began at the close of the nineteenth century, as the Supreme Court became increasingly receptive to new applications of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the 1897 case of Allgeyer v. Louisiana, the court concluded that 14th Amendment protections for substantive due process also included economic freedoms, such as the right to engage in economic activity without arbitrary restrictions. This view reached its zenith after the Lochner decision, in which the Supreme Court struck down a New York regulation limiting bakers to working 60 hours a week.
The doctrine of economic substantive due process empowered courts to engage in judicial review of economic regulations. Under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 5th and 14th Amendments, economic liberties could only be regulated for a limited set of reasons, such as health, safety, and public welfare. This interpretation allowed for an unprecedented level of judicial activism, leading to a laissez-faire policy regime and dissatisfaction from self-styled progressives in the legislative and executive branches.
Driving the discord between elected officials and the judiciary was that the Supreme Court required a relatively substantial connection between regulations and the problem they were attempting to resolve. For instance, although in Lochner the court accepted that bakers were subject to greater risks to their respiratory health, they did not accept that the risk warranted economic regulation on their work hours. This trend continued through the Lochner era, with the court tending to strike down economic regulations of working conditions, wages or hours.
The Lochner era ended in 1937, with the Supreme Court decision in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish. The abrupt end of the Lochner Era and doctrine of economic substantive due process is often credited to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After his New Deal policies were stymied by the Supreme Court, President Roosevelt threatened to "pack" the court with new appointees. In what has been dubbed “the switch in time that saved nine”, the Supreme Court acquiesced to the President’s demands, ending economic substantive due process to preserve the size of the bench.
[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]