Intermediate Scrutiny Pre-Intermediate Scrutiny
One of the most interesting aspects of my research into Justice Sutherland is the way in which the Court treated statutes that discriminated on the basis of sex in the 1920s and 1930s. Though I’m not an expert on the history of sex discrimination, my sense is that the standard account says that the Court did not take that issue seriously until the 1970s. I’m getting a different picture from reading the cases.
Consider Radice v. New York, which was written by Sutherland for a unanimous Court in 1924. Radice concerned a New York statute that barred women from working in most restaurants from 10PM to 6AM. This was basically an anti-crime measure, though it was also described as a public health measure. The Court upheld the statute and said the following:
“Where the constitutional validity of a statute depends upon the existence of facts, courts must be cautious about reaching a conclusion respecting them contrary to that reached by the Legislature; and if the question of what the facts establish be a fairly debatable one, it is not permissible for the judge to set up his opinion in respect of it against the opinion of the lawmaker. The state Legislature here determined that night employment of the character specified was sufficiently detrimental to the health and welfare of women engaging in it to justify its suppression, and, since we are unable to say that the finding is clearly unfounded, we are precluded from reviewing the legislative determination.”
Now this may sound surprising. After all, we are told that the Court in this era did not care about facts (only Brandeis did), and that they did not defer to legislative judgments about economic legislation (only Holmes and Brandeis did). But what about the Court’s holding a year earlier in Adkins (also written by Sutherland) holding that minimum wage laws for women were unconstitutional?
“The statute in the Adkins Case was a wage-fixing law, pure and simple. It had nothing to do with the hours or conditions of labor. We held that it exacted from the employer ‘an arbitrary payment for a purpose and upon a basis having no causal connection with the business, or the contract or the work’ of the employee; but, referring to the Muller Case we said that ‘the physical differences [between men and women] must be recognized in appropriate cases, and legislation fixing hours or conditions of work may properly take them into account.’”
One way to think about this distinction is that the Court was applying a form of intermediate scrutiny. In a case like Muller v. Oregon or Radice where there was (in the Court’s view) an ample factual record to support discrimination and where the regulation was related to physical differences between the sexes, then the statutes were upheld. With respect to wage laws, though, such a record was (in the Court’s view) was lacking or there was no sense that physical differences mattered. Anyway, it’s just a hypothesis.