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Skinner v. Oklahoma

    Citation. 316 U.S. 535, 62 S. Ct. 1110, 86 L. Ed. 1655, 1942 U.S.

    Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, Skinner (Petitioner), was sentenced to involuntary sterilization under Oklahoma’s Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act (the Act) and now alleges that the Act deprives him of equal protection under the laws.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The right to have offspring is a fundamental right, requiring a compelling state interest to interfere with it.

    Facts. Oklahoma defined a “habitual criminal” as a person who, “having been convicted two or more times for crimes ‘amounting to felonies involving moral turpitude’ either in Oklahoma or another State, is thereafter convicted of such a felony in Oklahoma and is sentenced to a term of imprisonment in a Oklahoma penal institution.” Such habitual criminals could be subject to forced sterilization. The Petitioner had been twice arrested for theft offenses before being arrested and confined for armed robbery. During his third incarceration, the Act was passed and proceedings were instituted against him.

    Issue. May the State sterilize an individual against his will for being convicted of three felonies involving moral turpitude?

    Held. No. Supreme Court of Oklahoma ruling reversed.
    Justice William Douglas (J. Douglas) notes that sterilization of habitual offenders in no way guarantees that new offenders will not be born. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that habitual offenders would spawn offenders themselves.
    J. Douglas cannot justify the distinction between larceny (involving moral turpitude) and embezzlement (not involving moral turpitude) in the eyes of the statute. This is clear discrimination in J. Douglas’s view. In terms of fines and imprisonment the crimes are identical to the State. Only when it comes to sterilization do the crimes differ. As such, equal protection is violated.
    Concurrence. Chief Justice Harlan Stone (J. Stone) concurs in the judgment, but rests his decision on due process grounds, arguing that the invasion of personal liberty is too great.

    Discussion. Skinner represents the Supreme Court of the United States’ growing awareness of the right to reproductive autonomy. Unlike later cases that focus on due process and a right to privacy, the majority in Skinner holds that sterilization in the present situation violates equal protection principles.


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