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Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson

Citation. 316 U.S. 535 (1942)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioner, convicted of the crime of stealing chickens and of robbery with firearms, challenged that Oklahoma statute that allows courts to make a judgment that renders certain criminals sexually sterile.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A State is not constrained in the exercise of its police power to ignore experience which marks a class of offenders or a family of offenses for special treatment nor is it prevented by the equal protection clause from confining its restrictions to those classes of cases where the need is deemed to be clearest.


Oklahoma deprives certain individuals of a right which is basic to the perpetuation of a race – the right to have offspring. Oklahoma has decreed the enforcement of its law against petitioner, overruling his claim that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Oklahoma statute defines a habitual criminal as a person who, having been convicted two or more times for crimes amounting to felonies involving moral turpitude. If the state court finds that the defendant is an habitual criminal and that he may be rendered sexually sterile without detriment to his general health, then the court shall render judgment to the effect that the defendant be made sexually sterile by the operation.


Does the Oklahoma statute that allows courts to make a judgment that renders certain criminals sexually sterile violate the Constitution?


Yes, the law fails to meet the requirements of equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, though the Court gives Oklahoma large deference. The legislation here involves on of the basic civil rights of man. Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of race and state legislation shall not seek to abridge one’s fundamental right to marriage and procreation.


Justice Stone

The holding by the Court was wrongly based on the recourse to the equal protection clause. Though petitioner was given a hearing to ascertain whether sterilization would be detrimental to his health, he was given none to discover whether his criminal tendencies are of an inheritable type. A state may constitutionally interfere with the personal liberty of the individual to prevent the transmission by inheritance of his socially injurious tendencies. But it may not do so without giving him a hearing and opportunity to challenge the existence as to him of the only facts which could justify so drastic a measure.


The power to sterilize, if exercised, may have subtle, far-reaching and devastating effects. In evil or reckless hands, it can cause races or types which are inimical to the dominant group to wither or disappear. There is no redemption for the individual whom the law touches. Any experiment which the State conducts is to his irreparable injury. He is forever deprived of a basic liberty. Sterilization of those who have committed grand larceny, with immunity for those who are embezzlers is a clear, pointed, unmistakble discrimination. Oklahoma makes no attempt to say that he who commits larceny by trespass or trick has biologically inheritable traits that he who commits embezzlement lacks. In terms of fines and imprisonment, the crimes of larceny and embezzlement rate the same under the Oklahoma code. Only when it comes to sterilization are the pains and penalties of the law different. The equal protection clause prohibits this.

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