A Landmark Supreme Court Case as Explained by a Rock Song



charliedanielsNothing pleases me more than when two of my interests collide. Sometimes this happens organically (as in my “Let’s Get Litigious” series, which is all about rock-related court battles). Sometimes I artlessly mash two disparate concepts together, violent and uneven seams clearly visible. This is one of those times, though I sure had fun thinking of ideas for it.

It occurred to me that though the Supreme Court technically controls 1/3 of the U.S. Government, most people don’t consider them much. That’s probably because most Supreme Court cases are almost perversely boring. Thus, I thought of a way to jazz them up a bit. I picked a few extremely important cases, and then picked a well-known rock song that, to me, best embodied the point of that particular case. I’ll do them one at a time so as to properly give you all the facts. Hopefully I made things a bit more fun. If not, then I’m sure I’ll think of another dumb idea next time.

1. Lochner v. New York

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The very brief situation: In 1895, the New York Legislature passed a law called the “Bakeshop Act,” which prohibited employees in bakeries from working more than ten hours per day or sixty hours per week. Joseph Lochner owned a bakery in Utica, NY. He was indicted in 1899 on a charge that he let an employee work more than sixty hours in one week. This, of course, violated the Bakeshop Act, and Lochner was fined. The bakery owner then appealed his case based on a clause in the Fourteenth Amendment known as “The Due Process Clause.” This is the clause that prevents the government from depriving you of “life, liberty or property.” Lochner argued that he privately contracted with the employee to work 60 hours in a week, and he had a right to do so without the government getting involved. In other words, if two private parties make an agreement between themselves, this is one of the “liberties” protected by this clause. This case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, who agreed with Lochner and more or less established the right to contract as fundamental based on this clause.

The Song: “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by Charlie Daniels Band

If there is one rock song that best embodies the Constitutional right to contract, it must be this one. It’s about a legally binding contract between a man and the Devil. Both parties give consideration (Devil agrees to give fiddle if he loses, Johnny agrees to give soul to devil if he does), and this is a classic exchange of a promise for a promise between two willing adults. Both parties are legally able to consent and there is no evidence of any sort of unbalanced bargaining power (though the Devil is technically an ageless and unholy creature). We’ve got ourselves a classic American contract! If either party had breached (let’s say the Devil didn’t deliver the golden fiddle when he lost), the other party could enforce this contract in a court of law, and the government would have to stay out of it. At least with regard to ruling on the subject matter of the contract, that is. They can’t say “This contract is stupid” and refuse to enforce it on those grounds.  It’s no accident that the Devil came to Georgia, one of the most traditionally pro-local government states in the union. If Johnny had lost, one can only assume even the members of Charlie Daniels Band would have said, “a deal’s a deal.”

The ability to make agreements among ourselves is one of the true hallmarks of freedom. After all, what is a marriage but a contract between two parties to stay together and share assets? We make thousands of tiny agreements and contracts every week. Lochner codified this previously unwritten but still essential liberty, and Charlie Daniels Band celebrated the beauty of contractual freedom with their classic track.

Was this fun? Let me know! I have other ideas!

By Joe Schneid, Louisville, Kentucky (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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