The Supreme Court: Fuller Court, 1888 to 1910

Fuller Court, 1888 to 1910

Melville Fuller was the first chief justice appointed who had never held a federal office before being appointed, yet many believe he was one of the most effective chief justices to serve on the court. Fuller studied at Harvard Law School and had a prominent legal practice in Chicago before being appointed by President Grover Cleveland.

He was known as a great mediator and led the case discussions in conferences to find a route to compromise. Fuller started the tradition that each justice greet and shake hands with every other justice each morning. This tradition is still followed today and helps to strengthen the idea of brethren.

The Fuller Court started a new phase of judicial activism with its strong support for the principle of laissez faire, which opposes any form of government interference in the economy. This basis of capitalism believes it is dangerous to subject any aspect of corporate power to public control. It also opposes any restriction upon the rights of private property. Justices regularly overturned any legislation that might try to limit corporate or private property rights.

Photograph of Chief Justice Melville Fuller by Harris and Ewing.

Photograph of Chief Justice Melville Fuller by Harris and Ewing.(From the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Court Connotations

Laissez faire is an economic principle on which capitalism is based. It opposes governmental regulation of or interference in commerce unless necessary to enable the operation of a free enterprise system based solely on its own economic laws.

Pollock v. Farmer's Loan & Trust Co.

One landmark case for the Fuller Court was Pollock v. Farmer's Loan & Trust Co., which was used to declare the Income Tax Act of 1894 unconstitutional. I'll bet anyone who would like to get rid of the income tax today wishes this case was still the precedent.

The Constitution gives states the power to impose direct taxation, but limits the federal government's right to impose direct taxes unless they are apportioned among the states based on their representation in Congress. Congress passed the Income Tax Act of 1894 to tax people with incomes over $4,000 with no provision for apportionment. The Fuller Court ruled the Income Tax Act unconstitutional. This ruling stood until 1913 when the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted.

Court Connotations

The Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution states, “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” The amendment was in direct response to the 1895 case Pollock v. Farmer's Loan and Trust Co., and established that the federal government could tax without having to apportion the tax among the states.

Before even the Sixteenth Amendment was adopted, the Court realized it had put the country close to the possible danger of bankruptcy. To alleviate that threat, the Court became creative with how it defined “direct tax” and ended up allowing certain types of taxes on private property, called “excise taxes,” which the court determined were based on the “incident of ownership.” Types of taxes the court allowed included revenue stamps on the sales of merchandise (sales taxes) and inheritance taxes.

Lochner v. New York

The most discredited case of the Fuller Court was Lochner v. New York in 1905. Many think the only Supreme Court case more discredited than this one is the Dred Scott case. Before I get into the facts of the case, I need to set the stage. In the early 1900s it was not unusual for bakers to work over 100 hour per week in bakeries that were often located in the basements of tenement houses.

New York passed a law in 1895 to try to protect workers and reform what it saw as unhealthy and unfair working conditions. This law limited the number of hours a baker could work to ten per day or 60 per week. Opponents of this law said this was unwarranted government interference in the free market.

Lochner filed suit against the state of New York on the basis that the law was unconstitutional because it violated his “liberty to contract” between his business and his employees. He cited the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees the right to property. He said this guarantee protects the individual's right to buy and sell their labor (or property) freely.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lochner in a split 5 to 4 decision and ruled the New York law unconstitutional. Justice Rufus Peckham wrote the Court's opinion and said:

“The general right to make a contract in relation to his business is part of the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and this includes the right to purchase and sell labor, except as controlled by the State in the legitimate exercise of its police power …. There is no reasonable ground, on the score of health, for interfering with the liberty of the person or the right of free contract, by determining the hours of labor, in the occupation of a baker. Nor can a law limiting such hours be justified as a health law to safeguard the public health, or the health of the individuals following that occupation.”

The Lochner decision was fully repudiated by the Supreme Court by the mid 1950s, but even the Fuller Court started chipping away at it in 1908 in the case Muller v. State of Oregon.

Muller v. State of Oregon

In this case, Oregon passed a law that limited the number of hours women could work in certain commercial businesses. Curt Muller, who owned a laundry in Portland, Oregon, refused to obey the limitations of the law and sued. This law was one of many that had been passed around the country to protect children, women, and people working in hazardous occupations such as mining. Muller v. State of Oregon was chosen by the Supreme Court to test the constitutionality of this legislation. The court ruled the Oregon law constitutional and said:

“As healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of women is an object of public interest. The regulation of her hours of labor falls within the police power of the State, and a statute directed exclusively to such regulation does not conflict with the due process or equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

This partially reversed the earlier finding in Lochner granting states the right to limit certain labor contracts for certain “social” purposes. Apparently the Court believed women and babies had more social significance than male bakers.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.