Landmark Supreme Court Case: Buck v. Bell (1927)
Buck v. Bell (1927) is the 54th landmark Supreme Court case, and the first case in the Science module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Buck v. Bell (1927)
The concept of eugenics was propounded in 1883 by Francis Galton, who also coined the name. The idea first became popular in the United States, and had found proponents in Europe by the start of the 20th century; 42 of the 58 research papers presented at the First International Congress of Eugenics, held in London in 1912, were from American scientists.
Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization statute in 1907, but it was legally flawed. To remedy that situation, Harry Laughlin, of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, designed a “model eugenic law” that was reviewed by legal experts. In 1924, the Commonwealth of Virginia adopted a statute authorizing the compulsory sterilization of the intellectually disabled for the purpose of eugenics, a statute closely based on Laughlin’s model.
Looking to determine if the new law would pass a legal challenge, on September 10, 1924, Albert Sidney Priddy, superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, filed a petition to his Board of Directors to sterilize Carrie Buck. She was an 18-year-old patient at his institution who he claimed had a mental age of 9.
Priddy maintained that Buck represented a genetic threat to society. According to him, Buck’s 52-year-old mother possessed a mental age of 8, had a record of prostitution and immorality, and had three children without good knowledge of their paternity. Buck, one of those children, had been adopted and attended school for five years, reaching the level of sixth grade; however, according to Priddy, Buck eventually proved to be “incorrigible”, and gave birth to an illegitimate child.
Her adoptive family had her committed to the State Colony as “feeble-minded”, feeling they were no longer capable of caring for her. Before the sterilization procedure could be performed, however, a hearing was required to determine whether or not the operation was a wise thing to do.
Q: Did the Virginia statute which authorized sterilization deny Buck the right to due process of the law and the equal protection of the laws as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment?
A: No. The statute did not violate the Constitution.
The Court upheld a statute instituting compulsory sterilization of the unfit “for the protection and health of the state.” Buck’s challenge was not upon the medical procedure involved which could happen only after “months of observation” but on the process of the substantive law since sterilization could not occur until a proper hearing had occurred (at which the patient and a guardian could be present) and after the Circuit Court of the County and the Supreme Court of Appeals had reviewed the case, if so requested by the patient. That was enough to satisfy the Court that there was no Constitutional violation.
Citing the best interests of the state, Justice Holmes affirmed the value of a law like Virginia’s in order to prevent the nation from “being swamped with incompetence . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Carrie Buck was operated upon, receiving a compulsory salpingectomy (a form of tubal ligation). She was later paroled from the institution as a domestic worker to a family in Bland, Virginia.
She was an avid reader until her death in 1983. Her daughter Vivian had been pronounced “feeble minded” after a cursory examination by ERO field worker Dr. Arthur Estabrook. According to his report, Vivian “showed backwardness”, thus the “three generations” of the majority opinion though it’s worth noting that the child did very well in school for the two years that she attended (she died of complications from measles in 1932), even being listed on her school’s honor roll in April 1931.
It was later discovered that Buck’s pregnancy was not caused by any “immorality” on her own part. In the summer of 1923, while her adoptive mother was away “on account of some illness”, her adoptive mother’s nephew had raped Buck, and her later commitment has been seen as an attempt by the family to save their reputation.
It’s also been asserted that Buck’s lawyer, Irving Whitehead, poorly argued her case, failed to call important witnesses, and was remarked by commentators to often not know what side he was on. It is now thought that this was not because of incompetence, but deliberate.
Whitehead had close connections to the counsel for the institution and to Priddy. Whitehead was a member of the governing board of the state institution in which Buck resided, had personally authorized Priddy’s sterilization requests, and was a strong supporter of eugenic sterilization.
Buck v. Bell legitimized eugenic sterilization laws in the United States as a whole. While many states already had sterilization laws on their books, their use was erratic and in effect practically non-existent in every state except for California. After Buck v. Bell, dozens of states added new sterilization statutes, or updated their constitutionally non-functional ones already enacted, with statutes which more closely mirrored the Virginia statute upheld by the Court.
Adolf Hitler closely modelled his Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring on Laughlin’s “Model Law”. The Third Reich held Laughlin in such regard that they arranged for him to receive an honorary doctorate from Heidelberg University in 1936. At the Nuremberg trials after World War II, Nazi doctors explicitly cited Holmes’s opinion in Buck v. Bell as part of their defense.
Sterilization rates under eugenic laws in the United States climbed from 1927 until Skinner v. Oklahoma, (1942). While Skinner did not specifically overturn Buck v. Bell, it created enough of a legal quandary to discourage many sterilizations.
By 1963, sterilization laws were almost wholly out of use, though some remained officially on the books for many years. Language referring to eugenics was removed from Virginia’s sterilization law, and the current law, passed in 1988 and amended in 2013, only authorizes the voluntary sterilization of those 18 and older, after the patient has given “written consent” and the “doctor” has informed the “patient” of the “consequences” as well as “alternative methods of contraception”
Although this opinion and eugenics remain controversial, the decision in this case still stands. Buck v. Bell was cited as a precedent by the opinion of the court (part VIII) in Roe v. Wade (1972), but not in support of abortion rights. To the contrary, Justice Blackmun quoted it to justify that the constitutional right to abortion is not unlimited.
Next Science & Technology Case: MGM v. Grokster (2007)
Next Case: Olmstead v. U.S. (1928)
Previous Case: Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. (1926)