Using Court Cases to Teach Social Studies and History
Key decisions of state and federal courts can be useful sources for students in civics, social studies, and state and U.S. history courses. Textbooks often include references to well-known, historic U.S. Supreme Court decisions, but students seldom read the actual opinions. Moreover, cases that make their way through state court systems rather than the federal system can be very useful in education because they illustrate important home-state issues and how they were resolved at the state’s highest courts. Those courts were often the forum of last resort, the place where issues that impacted people’s lives were finally hashed out and settled.
Some of the most interesting and important cases, including the two described later in this article, made their way through state courts but were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for final reckoning.
Carefully selected cases and decisions can illustrate these themes and lessons:
- Fundamentals of constitutional law – how constitutions represent the fundamental will of the people, how they are written and amended, how laws are based on them, and the role of the courts in deciding the constitutionality of the laws.
- The arguments that attorneys make in favor of or against the constitutionality of the laws that are the focus of key cases.
- The factors that judges consider and weigh in deciding on the constitutionality of the laws, including their interpretations of what the relevant constitutional provisions meant when written, how they have been interpreted by other courts over the years (called judicial precedent), and how they should be applied in a particular case.
- The impact of decisions, including the precedents they set and the degree to which those precedents hold up or are modified or altered in subsequent court decisions.
- The insights and implications of the cases for citizen rights and civic responsibilities under our constitutional government.
Teaching constitutional history is both challenging and rewarding. Teachers have a good deal of leeway in the issues and cases they select and how they guide students in understanding and drawing conclusions from them. Cases might be chosen to illustrate how the courts have interpreted, circumscribed, or expanded civil liberties; law-and-order and criminal justice issues; the role of government in regulating businesses, organizations, and people’s lives; and complex issues involving race, gender, diversity and social justice. These are critical issues at this time when there is widespread recognition of the need for more and better civics education to prepare young people to be responsible adult citizens. 1
Students can be assigned to read about the issues and summaries of the decisions but then should go on to read the court decisions themselves. Some court opinions may be challenging to follow because of their complex legal language, but most are clear and straightforward. Judges intentionally compose major court decisions so that their principles are understandable by the public, not just attorneys and judges. Judges cite constitutional provisions, laws, legal principles and precedents, but the gist of their decisions should be clear. They hope that the concerned public will read their decisions, and not just summaries by media commentators or legal experts. Teasing out the judges’ fundamental judicial principles and explanations is a way for students to gain an understanding of the role of the courts and constitutional law.
It is also a useful type of documentary analysis, interpretation, and writing assignment, making for additional connections with state and local educational standards.
Teachers might also consider assigning students to write their own legal briefs or have a debate between students playing counsel for contending viewpoints.
The history-making Lochner case, 1904-1905
A good example of a case that is readily adaptable by educators is what is commonly referred to as the Lochner case. This famous case was decided by the New York State Court of Appeals in 1904 (People v. Lochner) in a decision that was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court the next year (Lochner v. New York), 1905.2 The case involved an 1895 New York State law limiting the hours of employees working in bakeries to 10 hours per day or 60 per week and imposing sanitary regulations. It was an early example of progressive-era regulation. That time period, ca. 1895-1920, was an era when governments enacted multiple laws to regulate businesses and laboring conditions and hours. The New York law was intended to protect bakeshop workers from fatigue and possible harm to their health from working overly-long hours in dusty, sometimes unsanitary, conditions.
Advocates called it sensible, justifiable regulation. Opponents of the law – and other restrictions on businesses and regulations governing labor — rallied against it behind the concept of “substantive due process.” The U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment proscribed state laws abridging “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The amendment had been adopted in 1868 to help protect the rights of formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. The New York State constitution had a similar, but briefer, provision.
Years after the amendment passed, business attorneys began to argue that it also applied to the rights of employers to run their businesses without state interference and to employees’ rights to contract to work as they pleased. They contended it trumped the state’s “police power” – the power to regulate social and economic affairs for the general welfare, health, and safety of the people. In the closing years of the 19th century and the opening years of the new one, the “substantive due process” shield was pressed into service by the business community to forestall or overturn incipient state regulatory intervention. Usually, lawyers attacking regulatory laws in New York courts cited the 14th amendment, occasionally referencing the state constitution provision as well.
Joseph Lochner, a Utica bakery owner, believed that New York State could not tell him how to operate his business. He and his employees had the right to contract for whatever work hours they pleased. Lochner defied the 1895 law was arrested for employing a baker for more than the permissible hours. He challenged the law as a violation of his constitutional rights.
New York State Court of Appeals: the law is constitutional
The New York State Court of Appeals upheld the law in January, 1904. Its decision has been neglected by historical scholars even though it was issued by what was then arguably the nation’s most important court, second only to the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision had additional gravitas because it was written by the court’s Chief Judge, Alton B. Parker, who was one of the most prominent legal statesmen in the nation and who ran (unsuccessfully) for president in November 1904, eleven months after his court decided the case.
The Court reasoned as follows:
The 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and a comparable clause in the New York State Constitution, were not intended to infringe the state’s police power. Parker cited several Supreme Court decisions “sustaining statutes of different states which…seem repugnant to the 14th amendment but which that court declares to be within the policy power of the states.” He emphasized the Supreme Court’s 1898 decision in Holden vs. Hardy, which upheld a Utah law limiting the number of hours of work for miners as a legitimate exercise of state police power. New York State case law was “all in one direction,” too, the chief judge said, in support of broad state intervention.
Changing conditions warrant changing state regulations. The Constitution must be read in light of changes in society and the economy. “…by the application of legal principles the law has been, and will continue to be, developed from time to time so as to meet the ever-changing conditions of our widely diversified and rapidly developing business interests.”
Courts should not second guess the legislature. “The courts are frequently confronted with the temptation to substitute their judgment for that of the legislature,” the Chief Judge wrote. But whether the legislation is wise “is not for us to consider. The motives actuating the legislature are not the subject of inquiry by the courts, which are bound to assume that the law-making body acted to promote the public good.” Where interpretation is needed, “the court is inclined to so construe the statute as to validate it.”
The public interest is served by sanitary bakeries. “That the public generally are interested in having bakers and confectioners’ establishments cleanly and wholesome in this day of appreciation of, and apprehension on account of microbes, which may cause disease and death, is beyond question,” Parker asserted. The statute is designed “to protect the public from the use of the food made dangerous by the germs that thrive in darkness and uncleanness.”20
Regulating working hours is tied to public health concerns. Judge Parker went on to assert that “the legislature had in mind that the health and cleanliness of the workers, as well as the cleanliness of the work-rooms, was of the utmost importance and that a man is more likely to be careful and cleanly when well, and not overworked, than when exhausted by fatigue, which makes for careless and slovenly habits, and tends to dirt and disease.”
Three judges concurred with Parker, making a majority of four in support of the law. But three dissented, arguing that Lochner was right. The state had no business regulating bakers’ hours or conditions, and the law violated Lochner’s right to contract with his workers as he pleased. They said it was inconsistent in that it applied to bakery employers but not to proprietors. A worker could evade the hour limitation requirements by working for more than one bakery. The connection between bakers’ work hours and public health seemed tenuous.
U.S. Supreme Court: the law is unconstitutional
Lochner appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In its 1905 decision, the majority of that in effect agreed with the New York dissenters.
The high court was more conservative than its New York counterpart and had a track record of striking down state labor laws. The Lochner decision was written by Associate Justice Rufus Peckham, originally from Albany, New York, and a former member of the New York Court of Appeals before joining the U.S. Supreme Court in 1895.
Peckham posed a central question: “Is this a fair, reasonable and appropriate exercise of the police power of the State or is it an unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right of the individual to his personal liberty or to enter into those contracts in relation to labor which may seem to him appropriate or necessary for the support of himself and his family?”
The judge asserted that the New York bakeshop law clearly fell into the second category. Bakers are not “wards of the state” and he said and went on to ridicule the assertion that their work was dangerous. The law did not constitute a legitimate exercise of police power and contravened Lochner’s and his employees’ right of contract. “…no state can deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” said the judge.“There is no reasonable ground for interfering with the liberty of person or the right of free contract by determining the hours of labor in the occupation of a baker….Clean and wholesome bread does not depend upon whether the baker works but ten hours per day or only sixty per week.”
Four Supreme Court judges agreed with Peckham, giving him a majority of five. But four of his colleagues dissented, contending that that the liberty to contract is subject to reasonable regulations and restrictions imposed by the state. In effect, the four dissenters were aligning with the views of the four-judge majority on the New York Court of Appeals a year earlier.
Lochner in historical perspective
Historians have extensively analyzed Lochner v. New York but have overlooked its New York predecessor, People v. Lochner. 3 The reasoning in both decisions (and the dissents in both cases) are worthy of study. Between the two high courts, nine judges held the law was constitutional and seven held it was not, showing a near-even division of judicial opinion on the issue. That is another feature that makes the case useful for study by students.
For several years after Lochner v. New York, Justice Peckham’s views held sway and outdistanced Chief Judge Parker’s. The Supreme Court – and many state courts — cited Lochner in repeatedly striking down regulatory measures.
But public criticism mounted over the years that the courts were obstructionist and too inclined to use their narrow views of constitutional safeguards to kill much-needed reforms. The criticism intensified when the court struck down a number of laws that were part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery and reform program to combat the Great Depression in the early 1930’s. The courts gradually relented and Parker’s philosophy of supporting reasonable regulatory oversight eventually made a comeback.
In the 1937 case of West Coast Hotel vs. Parrish, an opinion written by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (coincidently, a former New Yorker himself) held that a Washington State minimum wage law was constitutional. “Liberty implies the absence of arbitrary restraint,” Hughes wrote, “not immunity from reasonable regulations and prohibitions imposed in the interests of the community.” He continued that “the Constitution does not recognize an absolute and uncontrollable liberty….the liberty safeguarded is liberty in a social organization which requires the protection of law against the evils which menace the health, safety, morals and welfare of the people.” 4
In effect, West Coast Hotel v. Parrish superseded Lochner v. New York as the predominant judicial philosophy about government regulation. For the most part, courts since then have leaned toward Parker’s and Hughes’ expansive reviews and away from Peckham’s narrow, constraining concept. But the Lochner case illustrates two contending perspectives on government’s role in social and economic affairs which still undergird and shape discussions today:
Governments have an inherent obligation to regulate organizations and protect people’s welfare. This includes regulating working conditions, hours, and wages to ensure that workers’ health and rights are protected. Constitutional guarantees of life, liberty, and property and the requirement that governments proceed in line with due process of law, should be interpreted and applied in light of this larger, inherent government role.
People have inviolable rights guaranteed by the U.S. and state constitutions. The provision in the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment that forbids governments from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, should be construed broadly. It is a bulwark against governments’ unwarranted overreaching and meddling in social, economic, and personal affairs.
The two Lochner decisions provide a good basis for discussion and debate of these two contrasting viewpoints, in part as a way of shedding light on similar issues under public discussion today. These two case opinions, and other like them, can help teachers guide students in considering these issues:
- What is included in state constitutions and how do they relate to the U.S. Constitution?
- What do citizens need to know about the federal and state constitutions and their rights and obligations under them?
- How should constitutions, written hundreds of years ago, be interpreted and applied by courts to modern conditions and issues?
- How should legislators (Congress, state legislatures) and chief executives (Presidents, governors) make sure that the laws they pass are constitutional?
- What criteria and processes should courts use in determining whether a law is constitutional or not?
- How and why do courts’ viewpoints and decisions change over time?
- How should citizens react to court decisions on constitutionality that are controversial or unpopular?
Sources for teaching constitutional history
- American Bar Association (https://www.americanbar.org) includes information on civic education
- American Society for Legal History (https:/aslh.net). A useful source for scholarship and teaching in the field of legal history.
- CASETEXT (http://www.casetext.com) and CASEMINE (http://www.casemine.com) present the texts of most important cases, including summaries of the issues and decisions. Many of the cases can be accessed by a simple Google search.
- Center for Civic Education (https://www.civiced.org) provides information for understanding and participating in a constitutional republic.
- Cornell University Legal Information Institute (https://www.law.cornell.edu ) has a slogan that “everyone should be able to read and understand the law.” It is an invaluable source of information on legal concepts and key cases.
- Historical Society of the New York Courts (https//history.nycourts.gov) has a wealth of information online, including court histories and biographies of judges of the supreme, appellate division, and Court of Appeals. There are also analytical essays on key cases.
- iCivics. (https://www.icivics.org). Sources for engaging students in civic learning.
- New Jersey State Bar Association (https://tcms.njsba.com) is an excellent source for legal issues in that state.
- New York State Bar Association (https://nysba.org), particularly its Law, Youth and Citizenship program, which promotes citizenship and law-related education, has useful information.
- Ohio Supreme Court, Under Advisement: Ohio Supreme Court Cases on Demand (2019) (https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/VisitorInfo/CivicEd/educationResources/underAdvisement/default.asp) is designed for high school students. It follows selected cases through the state court system.
- Rutgers University/New Jersey Center for Civic Education (https://civiced.rutgers.edu). Curriculum guides and other materials to foster student understanding and engagement in a democratic society.
- University of Pennsylvania/Annenberg Public Policy Center/Annenberg Classroom (https://www.annenbergclassroom.org). Information on the constitution and constitutional issues and cases.
- Bergan, Francis. The History of the New York Court of Appeals, 1847-1932.New York: Columbia University Press, 1985
- Bernstein, David E. Rehabilitating “Lochner:” Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011
- Dearstyne, Bruce. The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History. 2nd ed., Albany: SUNY Press, 2022
- _______. The Crucible of Public Policy: New York State Courts in the Progressive Era. Albany: SUNY Press, 2022
- Friedman, Lawrence M. A History of American Law. 4th ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2019
- Galie, Peter J. Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York. New York: Fordham University Press, 1996
- Gilman, Howard. The Constitution Besieged: The Rise and Demise of Lochner Era Police Power Jurisprudence. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995
- Hall, Kermit L., Editor-in-Chief., The Oxford Companion to American Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002
- Karsten, Peter. Heart Versus Head: Judge-Made Law in Nineteenth Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997
- Nelson, William. The Legalist Reformation: Law, Politics and Ideology in New York, 1920-1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001
- Stewart, Ted. Supreme Power: Seven Pivotal Supreme Court Decisions That Had a Major Impact on America. Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain Publishing, 2017
- White, G. Edward. Law in American History. Volume II: From Reconstruction Through the 1920’s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016
- Winkler, Adam. We, the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights. New York: Liveright, 2018
1. Educating for American Democracy, Educating for American Democracy: Excellence in History and Civics for all Learners (New York: Educating for American Democracy, 2021)
2. New York State Court of Appeals, The People of the State of New York, Respondent v. Joseph Lochner, Appellant. 175 NY 145 January 12, 1904 and U.S. Supreme Court, Lochner v. New York 198 U.S. 45 April 16, 1905. This discussion draws on the analysis of the case in my book, The Crucible of Public Policy: New York Courts in the Progressive Era (Albany: SUNY Press, 2022)
3. Paul Kens, Lochner v. New York: Economic Regulation on Trial (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998); Howard Gilman, The Constitution Besieged: The Rise and Demise of Lochner Era Police Power (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); Cass Sunstein, “Lochner’s Legacy,” Columbia Law Review 87 (June 1987), 873-919; David E. Bernstein, “Lochner vs. New York: A Centennial Retrospective,” Washington University Law Quarterly 83 (2005), 1474-1527.
4. U.S. Supreme Court, West Coast Hotel vs. Parrish 300 US 379 March 29, 1937