1937 March 29

Supreme Court Reverses Course: “West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish”


In West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, decided on this day, the Supreme Court upheld a State of Washington minimum wage law. The case was significant because it signaled a shift in the Supreme Court’s position on governmental economic regulations. Until this day, the Court had struck down regulations as violating the liberty of the contract clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Under that doctrine, the Court had struck down the major New Deal laws designed to end the Depression. The result was a constitutional crisis in which the five-member conservative majority on the Court had thwarted the overwhelming will of the people who had elected and reelected Franklin D. Roosevelt as President, along with huge Democratic Party majorities in Congress.

The Court’s switch on economic issues (famously labeled the “switch in time that saved nine”) was paralleled by the Court’s new interest in protecting civil liberties. See the famous Footnote 4 in United States v. Carolene Products, on April 25, 1938, in which the Court articulated its new position on political and civil rights. The conservative justices on the court began soon began retiring, and within just a few years President Roosevelt had appointed a majority of justices who were pro-civil liberties. The resulting “Roosevelt Court” established the first major body of civil liberties law in the history of the Supreme Court.

Learn more: Peter Irons, A People’s History of the Supreme Court (1999)

And more: Michael Perry, We the People: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court (1999)

Read: Jeff Shesol, Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs the Supreme Court (2010)

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