Skinner v. Oklahoma
|Skinner v. State of Oklahoma, ex. rel. Williamson|
|Submitted May 6, 1942
Argued May 6, 1942
Decided June 1, 1942
|Full case name||Skinner v. State of Oklahoma, ex. rel. Williamson, Atty. Gen. of Oklahoma|
|Citations||316 U.S. 535 (more)
62 S.Ct. 1110; 86 L.Ed. 1655
|Prior history||Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma|
|Compulsory sterilization as a punishment for a crime when applied only to certain categories of crimes violates the Equal Protection Clause.|
Skinner v. State of Oklahoma, ex. rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942), was the United States Supreme Court ruling which held that laws permitting the compulsory sterilization of criminals are unconstitutional if the sterilization law treats similar crimes differently. The relevant Oklahoma law applied to "habitual criminals," but the law excluded white-collar crimes from carrying sterilization penalties. The Court held that treating similar crimes differently violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. 
Under Oklahoma's Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act of 1935, the state could impose a sentence of compulsory sterilization as part of their judgment against individuals who had been convicted three or more times of crimes "amounting to felonies involving moral turpitude". The defendant, Jack T. Skinner, had been convicted once for chicken-stealing and twice for armed robbery.
The motivation behind the law was primarily eugenic: to try to weed out "unfit" individuals from the gene pool. Criminal sterilization laws like the one in Oklahoma were designed to target "criminality," believed by some at the time to possibly be a hereditary trait . Most punitive sterilization laws, including the Oklahoma statute, prescribed vasectomy as the method of rendering the individual infertile (which, unlike castration, does not affect sexual urge or function) in males, and salpingectomy in females (a relatively invasive operation, requiring heavy sedation, and hence with more risks to personal well-being).
The exception for white collar crimes is what was chiefly behind the ruling. The Court held, by eight to one, that the Act violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because white-collar crimes like embezzlement were excluded from the Act's jurisdiction. Justice William O. Douglas concluded that:
- Oklahoma makes no attempt to say that he who commits larceny by trespass or trick or fraud has biologically inheritable traits which he who commits embezzlement lacks. We have not the slightest basis for inferring that that line has any significance in eugenics, nor that the inheritability of criminal traits follows the neat legal distinctions which the law has marked between those two offenses. In terms of fines and imprisonment, the crimes of larceny and embezzlement rate the same under the Oklahoma code. Only when it comes to sterilization are the pains and penalties of the law different. The equal protection clause would indeed be a formula of empty words if such conspicuously artificial lines could be drawn.
Furthermore, because of the social and biological implications of reproduction, and the irreversibility of sterilization operations, Justice Douglas also stressed that compulsory sterilization laws in general should be held to strict scrutiny:
- The power to sterilize, if exercised, may have subtle, far-reaching and devastating effects. In evil or reckless hands it can cause races or types which are inimical to the dominant group to wither and disappear. There is no redemption for the individual whom the law touches. Any experiment which the State conducts is to his irreparable injury. He is forever deprived of a basic liberty. We mention these matters not to reexamine the scope of the police power of the States. We advert to them merely in emphasis of our view that strict scrutiny of the classification which a State makes in a sterilization law is essential, lest unwittingly, or otherwise, invidious discriminations are made against groups or types of individuals in violation of the constitutional guaranty of just and equal laws.
In a separate concurring opinion, Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone stated that he disagreed with the majority opinion's reliance on the Equal Protection Clause, and instead cited the Due Process Clause to prevent Skinner from being sterilized. The Oklahoma courts did not allow Skinner to call expert witnesses who would have testified that Skinner does not have any criminal genes and he is not likely to have children who would grow up to become criminals too. So, in Stone's view, the state denied Skinner due process by not allowing him to effectively defend himself against the punishment of being sterilized.
The effect of the ruling
The only types of sterilization which the ruling immediately ended were punitive sterilizations—it did not directly comment on compulsory sterilization of the mentally disabled or mentally ill and was not a strict overturning of the Court's ruling in Buck v. Bell (1927). Furthermore, most of the over 64,000 sterilizations performed in the USA under the aegis of eugenics legislation were not in prison institutions or performed on convicted criminals; punitive sterilizations made up only negligible amounts of the total operations performed, as most states and prison officials were nervous about their legal status (which were not affirmed in Buck v. Bell specifically) as possible violations of the Eighth ("cruel and unusual punishment") or Fourteenth Amendments ("Due Process" and "Equal Protection Clauses"). Compulsory sterilizations of the mentally disabled and mentally ill continued in the USA in significant numbers until the early 1960s. Though many of their laws stayed on the books for many years longer, the last known forced sterilization in the United States occurred in 1981 in Oregon. Federal law prohibits use of federal funds to sterilize "any mentally incompetent or institutionalized individual", but states including California use state funds for tubal ligations. A 2013 report showed that between 2006 and 2010, at least 148 women were sterilized after childbirth while incarcercated in two California prisons. In violation of state rules passed in 1994, none of these cases were reviewed by a state oversight committee.
Over one-third of all compulsory sterilizations in the United States (over 22,670) took place after Skinner v. Oklahoma. The 1942 ruling did, however, create a nervous legal atmosphere regarding these other forms of sterilizations, and put a heavy damper on sterilization rates which had boomed since the Buck v. Bell ruling in 1927. After the discovery of the Nazi atrocities done in the name of eugenics—including the compulsory sterilization of 450,000 individuals in barely more than a decade under a sterilization law which drew heavy inspiration from American statutes—and the close association between eugenics and racism, eugenics as an ideology lost almost all public favor. In Equal Protection analysis, Skinner applied the compelling state interest test to punitive sterilization, whereas Buck applied the less rigorous rational basis test to compulsory sterilization of the mentally disabled.
- List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 316
- Compulsory sterilization
- Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)
- Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978)
- Sex-related court cases in the United States