Skinner v. Oklahoma

316 U.S. 535 (1942)
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Petitioner brought a constitutional challenge to provisions of Oklahoma’s Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act of 1935 (the Act), which permitted sentences of compulsory sterilization for “habitual offenders” in crimes involving “moral turpitude.”  Pursuant to section 195 of the Act, the same sentence did not extend to white-collar crimes, defined as those “offenses arising out of the violation of the prohibitory laws, revenue acts, embezzlement, or political offenses.”

Petitioner had been convicted once of the crime of stealing chickens and twice for armed robbery, and was sentenced to compulsory sterilization. He argued that the Act violated the right to due process of law and the right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. First, he claimed that the compulsory sterilization provision constituted an impermissible exercise of police power due to the Act’s inclusion of scientific authorities concerning the inheritability of criminal traits.  Secondly, he claimed that due process was lacking under the Act because it did not provide the defendant an opportunity to be heard on the issue as to whether he was potentially a “parent of socially undesirable offspring”. Finally, it was suggested that the Act was penal in nature and that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment in permitting cruel and unusual punishment.

The Court held that the Act’s compulsory sterilization provision was unconstitutional, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court found that the provision touched upon one of the “basic civil rights of man,” on the basis that “marriage and procreation were fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race.” The power to sterilize, if exercised by the State, would therefore have “subtle, far-reaching and devastating effects,” and would “forever deprive prisoners of a basic liberty.”

The Court held that “when the law lays an unequal hand on those who have committed [] the same quality of offense and sterilizes one and not the other, it has made as invidious a discrimination as if it had selected a particular race or nationality for oppressive treatment.” The court further held that sterilization of those who have three convictions of grand larceny, with immunity for those who are embezzlers, is “clear, pointed, unmistakable discrimination.” The Court also found no basis for inferring that the biological inheritability of criminal traits followed the neat legal distinctions the statute had marked between the two offenses. It further noted that the two classes of crimes were treated equally under the Oklahoma code in terms of fines and imprisonment. The Court held that Oklahoma had thus failed to demonstrate the difference between inheritability of traits connected with white-collar crimes and those applicable under the Act in either penal or scientific terms.

“We are dealing here with legislation which involves one of the basic civil rights of man. Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race. 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.”  316 U.S., p. 541.

“When the law lays an unequal hand on those who have committed intrinsically the same quality of offense and sterilizes one and not the other, it has made as invidious a discrimination as if it had selected a particular race or nationality for oppressive treatment.” 316 U.S., p. 541.

“Sterilization of those who have thrice committed grand larceny, with immunity for those who are embezzlers, is a clear, pointed, unmistakable discrimination. 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.” 316 U.S., p. 541.

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