274 U.S. 200 (1927), argued 22 Apr. 1927, decided 2 May 1927 by vote of 8 to 1; Holmes for the Court, Butler in dissent without opinion. Gifted with the ability to express himself in tersely developed phrases, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes provided some of his most quoted expressions in Buck v. Bell (1927). Upholding in an 8-to-1 opinion a Virginia law that provided for sterilization, Holmes not only continued a long held disposition to allow states the full sweep of their police powers but also laced his opinion with the prejudices shared by a nation.
The case had its beginnings in the Progressive Era with Albert Priddy, superintendent of the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded at Lynchburg, Virginia. Enthusiastically endorsing the drive for race improvement through eugenical sterilization, Priddy practiced sterilization with the encouragement of the colony's board of directors. Since the legislation did not clearly sanction sterilization, a court in 1918 warned Priddy of his personal liability and he discontinued the operation.
State budget problems coincided with Priddy's efforts to get unequivocal legislation. With Aubrey Strode representing Priddy and the eugenical community, the 1924 assembly enacted a statute that provided for release, after sterilization, of individuals who otherwise might require permanent institutionalization. The law outlined procedures to be followed, including approval of the institution's board, appointment of a guardian, a hearing, and appeals to the courts.
Carrie Buck became caught in the web of events in 1924. A victim of rape, Carrie became pregnant. The family with which the eighteen-year-old lived had her committed to the colony, once the revised Binet-Simon I.Q. test revealed her mental age as nine. Her mother, Emma, who had been found to have a mental age of less than eight years, was also confined in the colony. After the birth of her daughter, Vivian, on 28 March 1924, Priddy recommended that Carrie be sterilized because she was feebleminded and a “moral delinquent.” Concluding that Vivian inherited the same condition from her mother who had in turn inherited it from her mother, Priddy had a perfect test case. The colony board accepted his recommendation and retained attorneys, Strode to represent the colony and Irving Whitehead, former member of the colony's board and friend of Strode, to represent Carrie.
The trial in the county circuit court took place on 18 November 1924. Strode presented eight witnesses and an expert's disposition to prove Carrie's feeblemindedness. Describing the Buck family as part of the “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites” in the South, the court heard that Vivian, the third generation, was “not quite normal.”
Whitehead called no witness to dispute either the “experts” or the allegations made about Carrie and her family. He could have challenged the charge of Carrie's illegitimacy and emphasized her church attendance and rather average school record. Whitehead failed in his defense because he intended to fail. The end he sought appears to have been the same as that sought by Priddy and Strode.
Now named Buck v. Bell, because John H. Bell had replaced Priddy at the colony, Whitehead in 1925 appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. Strode's brief argued that due process had been afforded and that state police powers allowed its officers to protect and decide for persons such as Carrie Buck. Whitehead countered that the law discriminated against those confined to institutions and that a state could not surgically deprive persons of their “full bodily integrity.” If allowed to do so, he warned, new classes, even “races” might be brought within the scope of the law and the “worst forms of tyranny practiced” in a “reign of doctors … inaugurated in the name of science.”