Professor’s Book on Landmark Supreme Court Case Clarifies History

Eleven years of preparation, the latest book by Helen Knowles, political science faculty member at SUNY Oswego, chronicles a pivotal Supreme Court case and corrects some historical distortions.

“Making Minimum Wage: Elsie Parrish versus the West Coast Hotel Company” tells a human story behind the 1937 court ruling in the University of Oklahoma Press publication, and began as a newspaper article in 2010 when Knowles was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma Press. Whitman College in Washington.

“Traditionally, I ask students, when studying court cases in my civil liberties class, to look at the stories behind the cases, because there is always a human story behind every case, and a lot of those human stories. got lost in the details, ”Knowles explained. “I knew there was a connection between the West Coast Hotel case and the Pacific Northwest, but what I didn’t know was that this case started in Wenatchee, Washington, in 140 miles from Whitman which made it extremely easy to go and do. primary research. “

The historical significance of the subject is obvious and is a key part of legal education, Knowles said.

“Almost everyone who teaches constitutional law or civil liberties teaches this case,” Knowles said. “This is one of the standard cases to be taught not only because of the importance of the fact that it essentially established that state-created minimum wage laws were constitutional and, in this regard, overturned decades precedents and somehow strengthen workers’ rights across the country. “

Correct misinterpretations

But the “time connections” – often taken out of context – overshadowed the impact of the decision, Knowles said.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a famous announcement in February 1937 that he was considering “reloading the court” or adding judges to the traditional nine justices of the Supreme Court – which he said would help the workload, but “that was very clearly what he was trying.” to do was to fill the tribunal with judges who were in favor of his liberal New Deal platform, because time and again, decisions would be made by the courts, overturning his New Deal platform by a 5: 4 vote, ”said Knowles.

So when the Parrish decision came down on March 29, “everyone jumped to the immediate conclusion that ‘aha, the judges are being swayed by the threat of the courts’ packing plans, which is why they are reversing the course – because Parrish turns the tide of a lot of decisions and it’s seen as the first key decision to start pushing forward on the New Deal agenda, ”Knowles noted. “Everyone assumed at the time that judges were crumbling under the weight of political pressure, which is why it became known as the ‘change in time that saved nine’.

Except, Knowles added, that impression was completely wrong.

In fact, the court had heard the arguments of the case in December 1936 and had tied itself 4-4. The deciding vote, Judge Harlan Fiske Stone, was in hospital with dysentery but had already chosen sides.

“Everyone knew how Judge Stone was going to vote,” Knowles said. “They knew he was going to vote to uphold Washington’s minimum wage law, so they basically just sat on the case until he got out of the hospital and could officially vote, and then contribute to the drafting of opinions. The problem is, in the meantime, FDR announces its packing plan for the court, and then this myth is created about the change in weather. “

All the more unfortunate that the story of the case itself captivated Knowles when she began to study it intently in 2010, “feeding quarters into the microfilm machine for printed copies of the newspapers from the 1930s, ”in the basement of the Wenatchee Library, she said. When she returned to the project, she realized that telling the story would involve correcting a huge misinterpretation.

“Even though we know the change didn’t happen because the votes were cast in December, if you search for ‘West Coast Hotel vs. Elsie Parrish’ you get a lot of results that tell you about Parrish and FDR and of the court’s packing plan, so that dominant narrative persists, to this day, ”Knowles said. “As soon as I started researching this case, I realized that what this dominant narrative was doing completely erased the cases behind this story.”

At this point, Elsie Parrish and the family didn’t say much about it after the decision, which made Knowles’ interest surprising when she first contacted them,

“They really had no idea, and when I started unpacking these stories, I realized how much they had been suppressed by this dominant, actually bogus narrative,” Knowles said. “That’s when I really started to seriously work on the book. I said, these stories must be discovered.

Even Barbara Roberts, Oregon’s first female governor and great niece of Elsie Parrish, didn’t know the real story until Knowles contacted her.

“Throughout her career, Barbara Roberts has been a trailblazer for women’s rights in the Pacific Northwest, but until I contacted her through the current Oregon governor’s office, she didn’t had no idea that Elsie Parrish, her great aunt Elsie, was involved in this supreme event of the United States. Women’s rights and labor rights court ruling, ”Knowles recalled.

Accessible history

Many chapters “give this story a human face, so I think that makes it a lot more accessible to the general public,” Knowles said. “I’ve tried to write it in a way that is accessible enough that even non-academics and non-experts in the field can be interested.”

Beyond that, the interdisciplinary book – which draws on a lot of archival research that no one else has seen – can be useful in courses on constitutional law, labor history, labor law. work and history, among others, beyond his training in political science.

Another sign of the book’s importance is Knowles’ invitation to speak, via Zoom, at the Supreme Court Historical Society on December 8.

“It doesn’t get much bigger than that,” Knowles said. “The only thing more important than that would, in fact, be to deliver him to the Supreme Court of the United States. I think this will give the book a lot of visibility.


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