Oswego professor’s book on landmark Supreme Court case clarifies history

SUNY Oswego political science faculty member Helen Knowles’ (right) recent book “Making Minimum Wage: Elsie Parrish versus the West Coast Hotel Company” tells a human story behind a landmark 1937 court decision. During research, she met with Barbara Roberts, the first female governor of Oregon and grandniece of Elsie Parrish.

OSWEGO - Eleven years in the making, the latest book by SUNY Oswego political science faculty member Helen Knowles 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 decision in the University of Oklahoma Press publication, and started as a journal article in 2010 when Knowles was a visiting assistant professor at Whitman College in Washington.

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

The historic importance of the topic is evident and is a key part of what teaching law is, Knowles said.

“Pretty much everybody who teaches Constitutional law or civil liberties teaches this case,” Knowles said. “It’s one of the standard cases to teach not only because of the importance in that it basically established that minimum wage laws created by states were constitutional and in that respect overturns decades of precedent and really sort of enhances the rights of workers across the country.”

Correcting

misinterpretations

But “temporal connections” -- often handled out of context -- have overshadowed the decision’s impact, Knowles said.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a famous announcement in February 1937 that he was considering “packing the court,” or adding justices to the Supreme Court’s traditional nine -- which he said would help workload but “it was quite clearly that was what he was trying to do was to pack the court with justices who were sympathetic to his liberal New Deal agenda, because time and again decisions would come out of court striking down his New Deal agenda by a 5-4 vote,” Knowles said.

Thus when the Parrish decision came down on March 29, “everybody jumped to the immediate conclusion that ‘aha, the justices are being swayed by the threat of the court packing plans so that’s why they reverse course -- because Parrish is reversing the course of a lot of decisions and it’s seen as the first key decision starting to uphold the New Deal agenda,’” Knowles noted. “Everybody assumed at the time that the justices collapsed under the weight of political pressure, so it became known as the ‘switch in time that saved nine.’”

Except, Knowles added, this impression was completely false.

In reality, the court had heard the arguments in the case in December 1936 and were knotted 4-4. The deciding vote, Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, was in the hospital with dysentery but had already chosen sides.

“Everybody knew how Justice Stone was going to vote,” Knowles said. “They knew he was going to vote to uphold the Washington minimum wage law, so they basically sat on the case until he was out of hospital and was able to officially cast his vote and then contribute to the back and forth writing of the opinions. The trouble is, in the meantime FDR announces his court packing plan and then this myth is created about the switch in time.”

Which is especially unfortunate because the story of the case itself captivated Knowles when she started intently studying it in 2010, “feeding quarters into the microfilm machine to get printouts of copies of the newspapers from the 1930s,” in the basement of the Wenatchee library, she said. When she returned to the project, she realized telling the tale would involve righting a massive misinterpretation.

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

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

“They really had no idea, and when I started to unpack these stories, I realized how much they had been suppressed by this dominant actually false narrative,” Knowles said. “That was when I really started to work on the book in earnest. I said, these stories have to be uncovered.”

Even Barbara Roberts, the first female governor of Oregon and the great niece of Elsie Parrish, did not know the true story until Knowles contacted her.

“Throughout her career, Barbara Roberts trailblazed for women’s rights in the Pacific Northwest yet until I contacted her via the office of the current governor in Oregon, she had no idea that Elsie Parrish, her great aunt Elsie, was involved in this landmark US Supreme Court decision for women’s rights and labor rights,” Knowles recalled.

Accessible story

Many chapters “are very much putting a human face to this story, so I think that makes it that much more accessible to a general audience,” Knowles said. “I’ve tried to write it in a sufficiently accessible manner that even non-academics and non-experts in the field might be interested in it.”

Beyond that, the interdisciplinary book -- which draws on a lot of archival research not seen by anybody else -- can be useful in Constitutional law, labor history, labor law and history classes, among others, beyond her political science background.

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

“It doesn’t get much bigger than this,” Knowles said. “The only thing bigger than this would be, actually in person, delivering it at the U.S. Supreme Court. I think that will get the book a lot of visibility.”

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