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The Thirteenth Amendment,

involved in Matter of Vinluan v. Doyle (N.Y. App. Div. Jan. 13):

Ten nurses, all from the Republic of the Philippines, are under indictment in Suffolk County for the misdemeanor offenses of conspiracy in the sixth degree, endangering the welfare of a child, and endangering the welfare of a physically-disabled person. The prosecution of these individuals came in the aftermath of their simultaneous resignations from positions at a Long Island nursing home. [The amount of notice provided before the next scheduled shift for each nurse ranged from 8 to 72 hours.] The attorney who provided these nurses with legal advice was also indicted....

[T]he indictment handed down against the petitioners explicitly makes the nurses' conduct in resigning their positions a component of each of the crimes charged. Thus, the indictment places the nurses in the position of being required to remain in Sentosa's service after submitting their resignations, even if only for a relatively brief period of notice, or being subject to criminal sanction. Accordingly, the prosecution has the practical effect of exposing the nurses to criminal penalty for exercising their right to leave their employment at will. The imposition of such a limitation upon the nurses' ability to freely exercise their right to resign from the service of an employer who allegedly failed to fulfill the promises and commitments made to them is the antithesis of the free and voluntary system of labor envisioned by the framers of the Thirteenth Amendment. While we are, of course, mindful that protecting vulnerable children from harm is of enormous importance, the fact that the prosecution may serve a legitimate societal aim does not suspend the nurses' constitutional right to be free from involuntary service.

We are also cognizant of the fact that Thirteenth Amendment rights are not absolute, and that "not all situations in which labor is compelled ... by force of law" are unconstitutional. It has been recognized that the Thirteen Amendment "was not intended to apply to exceptional cases well established in the common law at the time" of its enactment. Thus, the Amendment has been held inapplicable to a narrow class of civic duties that have traditionally been enforced by means of imprisonment, including military service.... [A]n individual's right to be free from involuntary service may be limited in "exceptional cases, such as the service of a sailor ... the obligations of a child to its parents, or of an apprentice to his master, or the power of the legislature to make unlawful and punish criminally an abandonment by an employee of his post of labor in any extreme cases."

Guided by these principles, we conclude that this is not an exceptional case justifying a restriction of the petitioners' Thirteenth Amendment rights. The nurses in this case were engaged in private employment rather than the performance of public service. Moreover, while they possessed the education and training necessary to care for chronically ill patients, including children on ventilators, these skills are not so unique or specialized that they cannot be readily performed by other qualified nurses. Furthermore, although an employee's abandonment of his or her post in an "extreme case" may constitute an exceptional circumstance which warrants infringement upon the right to freely leave employment, the respondent District Attorney proffers no reason why this is an "extreme case." The nurses did not abandon their posts in the middle of their shifts. Rather, they resigned after the completion of their shifts, when the pediatric patients at Avalon Gardens were under the care of other nurses and staff members.

Moreover, while the indictment alleges that the nurses collectively resigned "knowing that their resignations and the prior resignations at other Sentosa Care facilities would render it difficult for Avalon Gardens to find, in a timely manner, skilled replacement nurses for Avalon Gardens' pediatric patients," it is undisputed that coverage was indeed obtained, and no facts suggesting an imminent threat to the well being of the children have been alleged. Indeed, the fact that no children were deprived of nursing care played a large role in the Education Department's decision to clear the nurses of professional misconduct. Under these circumstances, we cannot conclude that this is such an "extreme case" that the State's interest in prosecuting the petitioners for misdemeanor offenses based upon the speculative possibility that the nurses' conduct could have harmed the pediatric patients at Avalon Gardens justifies abridging the nurses' Thirteenth Amendment rights by criminalizing their resignations from the service of their private employer.

Note that the Thirteenth Amendment argument rests heavily on several Supreme Court cases from the first half of the 1900s, such as Pollock v. Williams (1944). There's also a passage on lawyers' First Amendment rights to offer objectively reasonable advice to their clients: "it would eviscerate the right to give and receive legal counsel with respect to potential criminal liability if an attorney could be charged with conspiracy and solicitation whenever a District Attorney disagreed with that advice."

81 Comments

The so-called "Lochner Court" and the Thirteenth Amendment: In his post yesterday on the new Thirteenth Amendment case Matter of Vinluan v. Doyle, Eugene noted that the decision rested on on "several Supreme Court cases from the first half of the 1900s, such as Pollock v. Williams (1944)." More significant for me is that it cited and quoted from Bailey v. Alabama (1911), a decision by the so-called Lochner Court reviving the Thirteenth Amendment. Since this was the Court that presided during the Progressive Era, I think we should call this the "Progressive Era Court," in the same way we refer to the "New Deal Court."

That Bailey was decided by the same Court as decided Lochner is significant in several respects. First, and most obviously, it belies the notion that the Court in this era was particularly insensitive to the weak. While the Civil Rights Revolution and the Second Reconstruction came decades later, when compared with the Reconstruction Era Court that gutted the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, culminating with Plessy v. Ferguson, in Bailey, the Progressive Era Court was ahead of its time.

The second reason why Bailey is significant is that it departed markedly from the method adopted in Plessy in which the public interest rationale for a state law was presumed. Indeed, the Plessy Court never even articulated the public interest the segregation statute was supposed to accomplish; and it examined the statute separating the races without any consideration of the context in which it was enacted to subordinate blacks to whites. In contrast, the Court in both Lochner and Bailey took a more "realistic" approach by considering the rationales and operations of these statutes in context, revealing a potentially illicit purpose. Here is the language quoted from Bailey in Vinluan
Compelling the performance of labor through legal coercion was at issue in three cases decided by the United States Supreme Court in the first half of the last century, Pollock v. Williams (322 US 4), Taylor v. Georgia (315 US 25), and Bailey v. Alabama (219 US 219). In all three cases, the Supreme Court struck down state laws which criminalized the failure to perform a contract for labor or services for which an advance had been received. The challenged statutes all made a worker's mere failure to perform services for which money had been obtained prima facie evidence of an intent to defraud. In the first of the three cases addressing this issue, Bailey v Alabama, the Supreme Court explained that while the ostensible purpose of the statute under review was to punish fraud, "its natural and inevitable effect is to expose to conviction for a crime those who simply fail or refuse to perform contracts for personal service in liquidation of a debt." Continuing its analysis, the Bailey Court stated that "[w]hat the state may not do directly it may not do indirectly. If it cannot punish the servant as a criminal for the mere failure or refusal to serve without paying his debt, it is not permitted to accomplish the same result by creating a statutory presumption which, upon proof of no other fact, exposes him to conviction and punishment. Without imputing any actual motive to oppress, we must consider the natural operation of the statute here in question . . . and it is apparent that it furnishes a convenient instrument for the coercion" forbidden by the Thirteenth Amendment (id. at 244).
Oh, and there is one more reason why Bailey is significant: The great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., hero to so many Progressives back then and today still revered by progressives and judicial conservatives alike; whose dissent in Lochner and other Progressive Era cases earned him the title of "The Great Dissenter"; well, that Justice also dissented in Bailey v. Alabama, in favor of upholding states' rights:
Breach of a legal contract without excuse is wrong conduct, even if the contract is for labor, and if a state adds to civil liability a criminal liability to fine, it simply intensifies the legal motive for doing right; it does not make the laborer a slave. But if a fine may be imposed, imprisonment may be imposed in case of a failure to pay it. Nor does it matter if labor is added to the imprisonment. Imprisonment with hard labor is not stricken from the statute books. On the contrary, involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime is excepted from the prohibition of the Thirteenth Amendment in so many words. Also, the power of the states to make breach of contract a crime is not done away with by the abolition of slavery. But if breach of contract may be made a crime at all, it may be made a crime with all the consequences usually attached to crime. There is produced a sort of illusion if a contract to labor ends in compulsory labor in a prison. But compulsory work for no private master in a jail is not peonage. If work in a jail is not condemned in itself, without regard to what the conduct is it punishes, it may be made a consequence of any conduct that the state has power to punish at all. I do not blink the fact that the liability to imprisonment may work as a motive when a fine without it would not, and that it may induce the laborer to keep on when he would like to leave. But it does not strike me as an objection to a law that it is effective. If the contract is one that ought not to be made, prohibit it. But if it is a perfectly fair and proper contract, I can see no reason why the state should not throw its weight on the side of performance.
If someone took an advance payment for a long term contract for labor and breached, the statute in Bailey presumed an intention to defraud at the time the payment was received, thereby supplying the requisite mens rea for criminal punishment. This was one of the many inventive ways that Southern whites reimposed the incidents, if not the badges, of slavery on blacks after the Reconstruction Era Supreme Court defeated Congressional Republicans' efforts to secure civil rights, and ruthless Southern terrorism undermined the political resolve of the North to protect the rights of either the freedman or white Southern Republicans.

Unlike the majority, Holmes thought this statutory scheme was just fine:
But the import of the statute is supposed to be changed by the provision that a refusal to perform, coupled with a failure to return the money advanced, shall be prima facie evidence of fraudulent intent. I agree that if the statute created a conclusive presumption, it might be held to make a disguised change in the substantive law. But it only makes the conduct prima facie evidence -- a very different matter. Is it not evidence that a man had a fraudulent intent if he receives an advance upon a contract over night and leaves in the morning? I should have thought that it very plainly was. Of course, the statute is in general terms, and applies to a departure at any time without excuse or repayment, but that does no harm except on a tacit assumption that this law is not administered as it would be in New York, and that juries will act with prejudice against the laboring man. For prima facie evidence is only evidence, and as such may be held by the jury insufficient to make out guilt. This was decided by the Supreme Court of Alabama in this case, and we should be bound by their construction of the statute even if we thought it wrong. But I venture to add that I think it entirely right. This being so, I take it that a fair jury would acquit, if the only evidence were a departure after eleven months' work, and if it received no color from some special well known course of events. But the matter well may be left to a jury, because their experience as men of the world may teach them that, in certain conditions, it is so common for laborers to remain during a part of the season, receiving advances, and then to depart at the period of need, in the hope of greater wages at a neighboring plantation, that, when a laborer follows that course, there is a fair inference of fact that he intended it from the beginning. The Alabama statute, as construed by the state court and as we must take it, merely says, as a court might say, that the prosecution may go to the jury. This means, and means only, that the court cannot say, from its knowledge of the ordinary course of events, that the jury could not be justified by its knowledge in drawing the inference from the facts proved. In my opinion, the statute embodies little if anything more than what I should have told the jury was the law without it. The right of the state to regulate laws of evidence is admitted, and the statute does not go much beyond the common law. [citations omitted]
Who did Holmes think sat on juries in Alabama? All in a day's work for the Great Dissenter.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The so-called "Lochner Court" and the Thirteenth Amendment:
  2. The Thirteenth Amendment,