236 U.S. 1 (1915), 48, Coppage v. Kansas

Docket Nº:No. 48
Citation:236 U.S. 1, 35 S.Ct. 240, 59 L.Ed. 441
Party Name:Coppage v. Kansas
Case Date:January 25, 1915
Court:United States Supreme Court

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236 U.S. 1 (1915)

35 S.Ct. 240, 59 L.Ed. 441




No. 48

United States Supreme Court

January 25, 1915

Submitted October 30, 1914




The Kansas statute declaring it a misdemeanor punishable by fine or imprisonment for an employer to require all employee to agree not to become or remain a member of any labor organization during the time of the employment, so far as it applies to such a case as the present, where an employee at will, a man of full age and understanding, was merely required to freely choose whether he would give up his position of employment or would agree to refrain from association with the union while so employed, the case being free from any element of coercion or undue influence, held repugnant to the "due process" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Adair v. United States, 208 U.S. 11, followed to the effect that it is the constitutional right of an employer to dispense with the services of an employee because of his membership in a labor union, just as it is the constitutional right of an employee to quit the service of an employer who employs nonunion men.

Under constitutional freedom of contract, whatever either party has the right to treat as sufficient ground for terminating the employment where there is no stipulation on the subject he has the right to provide against by insisting that a stipulation respecting it shall be a sine qua non of the inception of the employment, or of its continuance if terminable at will.

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Included in the right of personal liberty and the right of private property, partaking of the nature of each. is the right to make contracts for the acquisition of property, chief among which is that of personal employment by which labor and other services are exchanged for money or other forms of property.

A state cannot, by designating as "coercion" conduct which is not such in truth, render criminal any normal and essentially innocent exercise of personal liberty, for to permit this would deprive the Fourteenth Amendment of its effective force in this respect.

When a party appeals to this Court for the protection of rights secured to him by the federal Constitution, the decision is not to depend upon the form of the state law, nor even upon its declared purpose, but rather upon its operation and effect as applied and enforced by the state, and upon these matters this Court cannot, in the proper performance of its duty, yield its judgment to that of the state court.

A statutory provision which is not a legitimate police regulation cannot be made such by being placed in the same act with a police regulation, or by being enacted under a title that declares a purpose which would be a proper object for the exercise of that power.

It being self-evident that, unless all things are held in common, some persons must have more property than others, it is from the nature of things impossible to uphold freedom of contract and the right of private property without at the same time recognizing as legitimate those inequalities of fortune that are the necessary result of the exercise of those rights.

The Fourteenth Amendment recognizes "liberty" and "property" as coexistent human rights, and debars the states from any unwarranted interference with either.

Since a state may not strike down the rights of liberty or property directly, it may not do so indirectly, as by declaring in effect that the public good requires the removal of those inequalities that are but the normal and inevitable result of the exercise of those rights, and then invoking the police power in order to remove the inequalities, without other object in view.

The Fourteenth Amendment debars the states from striking down personal liberty or property rights or materially restricting their normal exercise excepting so far as may be incidentally necessary for the accomplishment of some other and paramount object, and one that concerns the public welfare. The mere restriction of liberty or of property rights cannot, of itself, be denominated "public welfare" and treated as a legitimate object of the police power, for such restriction is the very thing that is inhibited by the Amendment.

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Without intimating anything inconsistent with the right of individuals to join labor unions, or questioning the legitimacy of such organizations so long as they conform to the laws of the land, as others are required to do, held that the individual has no inherent right to join a labor union and still remain in the employ of one who is unwilling to employ a union man any more than the same individual has a right to join the union without the consent of that organization.

There may not be one rule of liberty for the labor organization or it members and a different and more restrictive rule for employers.

The employee's liberty of making contracts does not include a liberty to procure employment from an unwilling employer or without a fair understanding. Nor may the employer be foreclosed by legislation from exercising the same freedom of choice that is accorded to the employee.

To ask a man to agree in advance to refrain from affiliation with the union while retaining a certain position of employment is not to ask him to give up any part of his constitutional freedom. He is free to decline the employment on those terms, just as the employer may decline to offer employment on any other, and, having accepted employment on those terms, the employee is still free to join the union when the period of employment expires, or, if employed at will, then at any time upon simply quitting the employment, and if bound by his own agreement to refrain from joining during a stated period of employment, he is in no different situation from that which is necessarily incident to term contracts in general.

Constitutional freedom of contract does not mean that a party is to be as free after making a contract as before; he is not free to break it without accountability.

Freedom of contract, from the very nature of the thing, can be enjoyed only by being exercised, and each particular exercise of it involves making an engagement which if fulfilled prevents for the time any inconsistent course of conduct.

87 Kan. 752 reversed.

The facts, which involve the constitutionality under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the statute of Kansas of 1909 making it unlawful for employers to coerce, require, or influence employees not to join or remain members of labor organizations, are stated in the opinion.

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PITNEY, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE PITNEY delivered the opinion of the Court.

In a local court in one of the counties of Kansas, plaintiff in error was found guilty and adjudged to pay a fine, with imprisonment as the alternative, upon an information charging him with a violation of an act of the legislature of that state, approved March 13, 1903, being c. 222 of the Session Laws of that year, found also as §§ 4674 and 4675, Gen.Stat.Kansas 1909. The act reads as follows:

An Act to Provide a Penalty for Coercing or Influencing or Making Demands upon or Requirements of Employees, Servants, Laborers, and Persons Seeking Employment.

Be it enacted, etc.:

SECTION 1. That it shall be unlawful for any individual or member of any firm, or any agent, officer, or employee of any company or corporation to coerce, require, demand, or influence any person or persons to enter into any agreement, either written or verbal, not to join or become or remain a member of any labor organization or association as a condition of such person or persons securing employment or continuing in the employment of such individual, firm, or corporation.

SEC 2. Any individual or member of any firm, or any

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agent, officer, or employee of any company or corporation violating [35 S.Ct. 241] the provisions of this act shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be fined in a sum not less than fifty dollars or imprisoned in the county jail not less than thirty days.

The judgment was affirmed by the supreme court of the state, two justices dissenting (87 Kan. 752), and the case is brought here upon the ground that the statute, as construed and applied in this case, is in conflict with that provision of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States which declares that no state shall deprive any person of liberty or property without due process of law.

The facts, as recited in the opinion of the supreme court, are as follows: about July 1, 1911, one Hedges was employed as a switchman by the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway Company, and was a member of a labor organization called the Switchmen's Union of North America. Plaintiff in error was employed by the railway company as superintendent, and as such he requested Hedges to sign an agreement, which he presented to him in writing at the same time informing him that, if he did not sign it he could not remain in the employ of the company. The following is a copy of the paper thus presented:

Fort Scott, Kansas, _____, 1911

Mr. T. B. Coppage, Superintendent Frisco Lines, Fort Scott:

We, the undersigned, have agreed to abide by your request, that is, to withdraw from the Switchmen's Union, while in the service of the Frisco Company.

(Signed) ____________

Hedges refused to sign this, and refused to withdraw from the labor organization. Thereupon plaintiff in error, as such superintendent, discharged him from the service of the company.

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At the outset, a few words should be said respecting the construction of the act. It uses the term "coerce," and some stress is laid upon this in the opinion of the Kansas Supreme Court. But, on this record, we have nothing to do with any question of actual or implied coercion or duress such as might overcome the will of the employee by means...

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