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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
Lest anyone miss the implication of the Court’s reasoning, the Chief Justice spelled it out: “The Adkins case was a departure from the true application of the principles governing the regulation by the State of the relation of employer and employed.” In short, Adkins , written by Sutherland and carrying the votes of a number of Hughes’s other brethren, was being put to death in its fifteenth year. One could not possibly reconcile Adkins , Hughes maintained, with “wellconsidered” rulings such as Muller . “What can be closer to the public interest than the health of women and their protection from unscrupulous and overreaching employers?” he asked. “And if the protection of women is a legitimate end of the exercise of state power, how can it be said that the requirement of the payment of a minimum wage fairly fixed in order to meet the very necessities of existence is not an admissible means to that end?”
With an eloquence, even passion, few thought him capable of, the Chief Justice added: “The legislature of the State was clearly entitled to consider the situation of women in employment, the fact that they are in the class receiving the least pay, that their bargaining power is relatively weak, and that they are the ready victims of those who would take advantage of their necessitous circumstances. The legislature was entitled to adopt measures to reduce the evils of the ‘sweating system,’ the exploiting of workers at wages so low as to be insufficient to meet the bare cost of living, thus making their very helplessness the occasion of a most injurious competition.”
Since many states had adopted laws of this nature to remedy the evil of sweatshop competition, the enactment of such legislation by the state of Washington could not be viewed as “arbitrary or capricious, and that is all we have to decide,” Hughes said. “Even if the wisdom of the policy be regarded as debatable and its effects uncertain, still the legislature is entitled to its judgment.” Delighted at what they were hearing, the New Deal lawyers in the chamber smiled broadly and nudged one another.
In his closing remarks the Chief Justice advanced an “additional and compelling” reason for sustaining the statute. The exploitation of “relatively defenceless” employees not only injured those women, he asserted, but directly burdened the community, because “what these workers lose in wages the taxpayers are called upon to pay.” With respect to that reality, he said, the Court took “judicial notice of the unparalleled demands” the Great Depression had made upon localities. (That comment revealed how far he was reaching out, for the state of Washington had submitted no factual brief about any added responsibilities, and the statute in question had been enacted long before the Wall Street crash.) Hughes did not doubt that the state of Washington had undergone these tribulations, even if it had not troubled to say so, and’that deduction led him to state, again with unexpected acerbity: “The community is not bound to provide what is in effect a subsidy for unconscionable employers. The community may direct its law-making power to correct the abuse which springs from their selfish disregard of the public interest.” Consequently, the Chief Justice concluded, “The case of Adkins v. Children’s Hospital … should be, and it is, overruled,” and the judgment of the Supreme Court of the state of Washington on behalf of Elsie Parrish “is affirmed.” Some two years after she changed sheets in the Cascadian Hotel for the last time, the Wenatchee chambermaid was to receive her $216.19 in back pay.
It would require some time for Court watchers to grasp the full implications of Hughes’s opinion in Parrish —to write of the “Constitutional Revolution of 1937”—but George Sutherland’s dissent revealed that the Four Horsemen understood at that very moment that their long reign, going all the way back to Adkins and even before, with only slight interruption, had abruptly ended. When, having spoken the final words, the Chief Justice nodded to Justice Sutherland seated to his left, Sutherland surveyed the chamber silently, almost diffidently, before picking up the sheaf of papers in front of him and beginning to read. Sensing his day had passed, Sutherland appeared barely able to bring himself to carry out his futile assignment. He started off speaking in a curiously toneless murmur, and even those nearby had trouble at first catching his words. In the rear of the room, all was lost.