Landmark Supreme Court Case: Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942)
Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942) is the 84th landmark Supreme Court case, second 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
- 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.
Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942)
The motivation behind eugenics was to try to weed out “unfit” individuals from the gene pool. Criminal sterilization laws were designed to target “criminality,” believed by some at the time to possibly be a hereditary trait. Most punitive sterilization laws 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)
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. He argued that the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
Q: Did the act violate the Fourteenth Amendment?
A: Yes. The Act violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Unanimous holding compulsory sterilization as a punishment for a crime when applied only to certain categories of crimes violates the Equal Protection Clause. The relevant Oklahoma law applied to “habitual criminals,” but the law excluded white-collar crimes, such as embezzlement, from carrying sterilization penalties without reason. Because of the social and biological implications of reproduction and the irreversibility of sterilization operations, compulsory sterilization laws should be subject to strict scrutiny.
The only types of sterilization which the ruling immediately ended were punitive sterilization; 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 US 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 US in significant numbers until the early 1960s.
Although 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 incarcerated in two California prisons. In violation of state rules passed in 1994, none of the cases were reviewed by a state oversight committee.
Ir’s estimated over a third of all compulsory sterilizations in the United States (over 22,670) took place after Skinner v. Oklahoma. The 1942 ruling, however, created 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 public favor.
In Equal Protection analysis, Skinner applied the compelling state interest test to punitive sterilization, and Buck applied the less rigorous rational basis test to compulsory sterilization of the mentally disabled. In 2002, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an inmate, incarcerated by the California Department of Corrections and serving a life sentence, was not permitted to inseminate his wife artificially because “the right to procreate is fundamentally inconsistent with incarceration.” The Appellate Court distinguished the case from Skinner v. Oklahoma because “the right to procreate while incarcerated and the right to be free from surgical sterilization by prison officials are two very different things.”
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