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The Case Of The Chambermaid And The Nine Old Men
When Elsie Parrish was fired, her fight for justice led to dramatic changes in the nation’s highest court.
December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
Not for some time did Hughes indicate what the Court had decided. Anxious minutes passed as he labored through a reprise of the facts in the case, and when he finally took up one of the arguments of Elsie Parrish’s attorneys, he did so only to reject it disdainfully. It was “obviously futile,” he said, for counsel to claim that the present case could be distinguished from Adkins on the grounds that Mrs. Parrish had worked for a “hotel and that the business of an innkeeper was affected with a public interest.” As it happened, he noted, one of the cases Adkins had disposed of had dealt with a hotel employee. If the Washington State law was to survive the day, it would need a better justification than this rickety effort.
It took only a moment more for Hughes to reveal that the Court was prepared to meet Adkins head on. Unlike Tipaldo , where the U.S. Supreme Court had felt bound by the ruling of the Court of Appeals of New York that the New York minimum wage act could not be distinguished from the statute in Adkins and hence was invalid, Parrish , the Chief Justice declared, presented a quite different situation, for the highest tribunal of the state of Washington had refused to be guided by Adkins and had sanctioned the law in dispute. “We are of the opinion that this ruling of the state court demands on our part a reëxamination of the Adkins case,” he continued. “The importance of the question, in which many States having similar laws are concerned, the close division by which the decision in the Adkins case was reached, and the economic conditions which have supervened, and in the light of which the reasonableness of the exercise of the protective power of the State must be considered, make it not only appropriate, but we think imperative, that in deciding the present case the subject should receive fresh consideration.” To do so properly, he observed, required careful examination of the doctrine of freedom of contract that had bulked so large in Adkins .
“What is this freedom?” Hughes inquired, his voice rising. “The Constitution does not speak of freedom of contract.” Instead, the Constitution spoke of liberty and forbade denial of liberty without due process of law. The Constitution did not recognize absolute liberty, however. “The liberty safeguarded is liberty in a social organization,” he declared. “Liberty under the Constitution is thus necessarily subject to the restraints of due process, and regulation which is reasonable in relation to its subject and is adopted in the interests of the community is due process.” As the Chief Justice spoke, members of the bar in the choice seats near the bench followed his every word as though transfixed, and Hughes’s delivery of the opinion in “a clear, resonant voice,” noted one correspondent, “electrified and held spellbound the spectators who crowded every corner of the majestic Supreme Court chamber.”
The Court had long since established that the State had especial authority to circumscribe the freedom of contract of women, the Chief Justice continued. In Muller v. Oregon (1908), he pointed out, the Court had fully elaborated the reasons for accepting a special sphere of State regulation of female labor. In that landmark case the Court had emphasized, in the words of Justice David Brewer, that because a woman performs “maternal functions” her health “becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.” Hence, Brewer had gone on, a woman was “properly placed in a class by herself, and legislation designed for her protection may be sustained even when like legislation is not necessary for men and could not be sustained.” The State could restrict her freedom of contract, the Court had determined, not merely “for her benefit, but also largely for the benefit of all.”
The precedents established by Muller and several later rulings had led the dissenters Adkins to believe that the D.C. minimum wage law should have been sustained, and with good reason, Hughes asserted. The dissenting Justices had challenged the distinction the majority Adkins had drawn between maximum hours legislation (valid) and minimum wage statutes (invalid), and that challenge remained “without any satisfactory answer.” The Washington State law was essentially the same as the D.C. act that had been struck down in Adkins , he acknowledged, “but we are unable to conclude that in its minimum wage requirement the State has passed beyond the boundary of its broad protective power.” In that sentence, however convoluted, Hughes had said what for some minutes past it had been clear he was going to say: the Supreme Court was sustaining Washington’s minimum wage law. Against all odds, Elsie Parrish had won.