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Obama botches legal precedent in citing Supreme Court

April 03, 2012|By David Savage
  • President Obama, seen through a teleprompter, speaks at an Associated Press luncheon in Washington.
President Obama, seen through a teleprompter, speaks at an Associated… (Carolyn Kaster / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — President Obama said again Tuesday that it has been a long time since the Supreme Court struck down an economic law passed by Congress, but he mixed up the decisions and their timing.

“We have not seen a court overturn a law that was passed by Congress on an economic issue, like healthcare, that I think most people would clearly consider commerce,” the president said. “A law like this has not been overturned at least since Lochner. Right? So we’re going back to the ‘30s, pre-New Deal.”

Actually, that’s wrong. The case of Lochner vs. New York was decided in 1905, and the Supreme Court continued to strike down laws that sought to regulate economic conditions until the mid-1930s. Law professors --  Obama used to be one -- often use the name of the case as the label for the era of Supreme Court activism that ended after the high court invalidated several New Deal laws from 1934 to 1936.

In the Lochner case, a shop owner from Utica, N.Y., challenged a state law after he was fined for working his employees more than 60 hours a week. The Supreme Court ruled for him and struck down the law in a 5-4 decision in April 1905.

Ever since, the Lochner decision has been cited as an extreme example of the court’s willingness to second-guess laws that protect workers. Law professors often refer to the “Lochner era” to refer to the period when the conservative courts struck down progressive laws.

During President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, Congress adopted a series of measures to cope with the Great Depression. The measures were challenged as undue federal regulation of business. The Supreme Court struck down several of them, including the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

The last major ruling came in 1936 when the court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down a New Deal law intended to prop up the price of coal and the wages of miners. In the Carter Coal case, the conservative majority said coal mining was essentially a local activity and not interstate commerce, and therefore, beyond Congress’ power under the commerce clause.

That fall, however, Roosevelt was reelected in a landslide, and the court switched directions in 1937. Since then, it has not voided a major federal regulatory law as having gone beyond Congress’ power.

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