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Skinner v. State of Oklahoma

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, claims that the Oklahoma statute that allows courts to make a judgment that renders certain criminals sexually sterile violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

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. 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, is thereafter convicted of such a felony in Oklahoma and is sentenced to a term of imprisonment in an institution. Machinery is provided for the institution by the Attorney General against such a person for a judgment that such person shall be rendered sexually sterile. If the court or jury finds that the defendant is a habitual criminal and that he may be rendered sexually sterile without detriment to his or her general health, then the court shall make judgment to the effect that said defendant be rendered sexually sterile by the operation. Petitioner was convicted of the crime of stealing chickens and robbery with fire arms several times. The Attorney General instituted proceedings against him.


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


Yes, the Oklahoma statute that allows courts to make a judgment that renders certain criminals sexually sterile violates the Fourteenth Amendment because the sterilization of those who have thrice committed crimes with immunity for those who are embezzlers is a clear, pointed, unmistakable discrimination. Oklahoma makes no attempt to say that he who commits larceny by trespass or trick or fraud has biologically inheritable traits that he who commits embezzlement lacks.


Justice Jackson

The present plan to sterilize the individual in pursuit of a eugenic plan to eliminate from the race characteristics that are only vaguely identified and which in our present state of knowledge are uncertain as to transmissibility presents other constitutional questions of gravity. Such an experiment with respect to an imbecile, a person with definite and observable characteristics where the condition had persisted through three generations and afforded grounds for the belief that it was transmissible and would continue to manifest itself in generations to come.

Justice Stone

Science has found and that law has recognized that here are certain types of mental deficiency associated with delinquency which are inheritable. But the State does not contend that either common knowledge or experience, or scientific investigation, has given assurance that the criminal tendencies of any class of habitual offenders are universally or generally inheritable. A law which condemns, without hearing, all the individuals of a class to so harsh a measure as the present because some or even many merit condemnation, is lacking in the Constitution.


The instant legislation runs afoul of the equal protection clause, though the Court gives Oklahoma that large deference which the rule of the foregoing case requires. We are dealing here with legislation that involves one of the basic civil rights of man. Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race. The power to sterile, if exercised, may have subtle, farreaching and devastating effects. In evil or reckless hands it can cause races or types which are inimical to the dominant group to wither and 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.

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