Skinner v. Oklahoma

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316 U.S. 535 (1942), argued 6 May 1942, decided 1 June 1942 by vote of 9 to 0; Douglas for the Court, Stone and Jackson concurring. In 1942 most states authorized sterilization of the “feeble-minded” or habitual criminals. Such laws were justified under theories of eugenics, but critics of compulsory sterilization argued that it was not certain that criminality and mental illness were inheritable. Skinner, convicted once for stealing chickens and twice for armed robbery, was ordered to submit to a vasectomy under the Oklahoma Criminal Sterilization Act.

In deciding Skinner's case, the Court recognized the right to have offspring as a fundamental right but did not declare compulsory sterilization laws totally invalid. Instead, Douglas's majority opinion focused upon an exemption in the Oklahoma law for persons convicted of embezzlement or political crimes. Douglas reasoned that, where a basic right is involved, strict scrutiny of such classifications is essential. He saw no rational basis to conclude that the tendency to commit larceny was inheritable, thus exposing repeat offenders to sterilization, while the tendency to embezzle was not. Therefore, the Oklahoma statute violated the requirements of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and was unconstitutional.

Concurring, Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone argued that the statute violated the Due Process Clause because it did not require a hearing specifically on the question of whether Skinner's criminal traits were inheritable. Justice Robert Jackson, also concurring, recognized that there are limits to the extent to which the state may conduct biological experiments at the expense of the dignity of a minority.

Paul Kens

Subjects: Law.

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