Thursday, March 19, 2009

West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish

I am reading this little book entitled The Supremes’ Greatest Hits. My sudden interest in it may be due to my recent viewing of “Dream Girls”, or because like many books I own, its smooth spine mocked me from its place of prominence at my bedside for more than a year, and I had had enough of it.

Whatever the case, the spine is now irreparably stretched out and I’m hooked!

Michael Trachtman, author of the book subtitled The 34 Supreme Court Cases that Most Directly Affect Your Life, is a practicing attorney who claims that he has “spent thousands of hours learning how not to write like a lawyer.” I believe it because I can understand him! I recommend the book to anyone who lacks his J.D. but is interested in the history of liberty and the impact of Supreme Court decisions in this country.

The decision of the title case I’d like to present here was issued in 1937. Trachtman subtitled it, What Gives Congress the Right to Regulate Private Businesses? I thought it might be of particular interest to many of us right now.


The entire text of which can be read here.

There’s a brief reference to and a chilling qualification on the Fourteenth Amendment at the very beginning of the Supreme Court’s decision. It’s interesting to note that at time of this decision, The Court was made up of conservatives known as the “Four Horseman” and the liberal “Three Musketeers” plus two swing votes.

Trachtman tells us that up until the time of the West Coast Hotel decision, the Court had been successful overturning President Roosevelt’s New Deal attempts to control businesses by using the Lochner v. New York (1905) precedent. That decision, about the unconstitutionality of New York’s attempt at limiting a baker’s work week stated “‘limiting the hours in which grown and intelligent men may labor to earn their living’ are ‘mere meddlesome interferences with the rights of the individual.’”

However, in this case, about the minimum wage of a female hotel employee, after a stall in the decision process brought on by an ill jurist and a desire of the chief justice to have the full court decide the matter, the final 5-4 decision handed down by the Court upheld the constitutionality of the minimum wage. Associate Justice Owen Roberts, who had previously sided with the conservative bloc against the New Deal measures, is generally credited with (or blamed for) the deciding vote.

During the time between the Court’s taking the case and rendering its decision, FDR, frustrated by his inability to get measures past the Supreme Court, introduced his “court-packing” plan in which he proposed to put up to six more justices on the bench to reportedly lighten the load of the over-70 jurist crowd. Coincidentally or not, Roberts’ decision to uphold the minimum wage laws has come to be known as “the switch in time saves nine” as it is widely regarded as the measure which helped put Roosevelt’s Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937 to bed and saved the Supreme Court as we know it.

This is all fascinating to me for several reasons. The Supreme Court is charged with interpreting the Constitution, and therefore with upholding the government of laws and not men; it is the final arbiter in all things legal. It has made some horrific mistakes (Dred Scott) and is not subject to censure – by anyone. As the number of jurists on the Court is not mandated by the Constitution, it is also subject to the threat of being overrun by any power-crazed Chief Executive who sees his mandate as bigger than his office. Finally, manipulating the Constitution to serve as a tool of social justice has become the Court’s dark and serious tradition.

So, are you like me wondering…where does the Court stand on the latest slate of “meddlesome interferences with the rights of the individual”, or can they now be counted on to affirm the social justice of it all?


HaynesBE said...

Thanks for this introduction to what sounds like a fascinating book.
Another one which might interest you is The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom by Levy and Mellor. The cases they discuss include Helvering v. Davis (1937), Wickard v. Filburn (1942), Home Building and Loan Assoc. v. Blaisdell (1934), US v. Miller (1939), US v. Caroline Products (1938)and Korematsu v. US (1944). Not surprising so many occurred during FDR's tenure.

A long but enjoyable and very informative book I would recommend is John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court by R. Kent Newmyer. (Ya gotta love that title!) This biography of our first Chief Justice entwines his life story with that of the creation and initial defining of the Supreme Court's role in our political lives.

Just in case you run out of reading material.

Lynne said...

Thanks, Beth. They sound so good that I requested them both.

In the meantime, I'm going to read Whatever Happened to Justice as it is in danger of getting lost on the "to be read" shelf.

HaynesBE said...

While on this topic, another good source was a series of lectures I listened to "Shaping Justice: Landmark Xases of the US Supreme Court" by Kermit Hall. I first listened to them a couple of years ago from my local library. When I went back recently to listen again, the library no longer had it so I purchased it through You can also get it from amazon or here:
West Coast was one of the cases. Here's the list of cases: COURSE LECTURES The Judicial Power, Jurisdiction, and the Ages of the Supreme Court The Establishment of Judicial Review: Marbury v. Madison (1803) Privilege and Creative Destruction: Charles River Bridge v.Warren Bridge (1837) Equality, Slavery, and the Supreme Court: Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) Native American Sovereignty and the Constitution: Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock(1903) Liberty to Contract in the Industrial Age: Lochner v. New York (1905) Clear and Present Danger, the First Amendment, and Total War: Abrams v. United States (1919) A Switch in Time? West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937) Japanese Internment and Total War: Korematsu v. United States (1944) Simple Justice: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954, 1955) Abortion, Women, and Equality: Roe v. Wade (1973) Presidential Immunity and Watergate: United States v. Nixon (1974) The Boundaries of Discrimination: Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)

It sure made my shopping and chauffeuring of kids more interesting.

Lynne said...

Ooh - they had that too.

That's an even better idea! I can listen while I'm driving and kill two birds with one CD: learning important things and not contributing further to the 80s sound track that normally plays in my head.

Thanks, again.