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Skinner v. Oklahoma

Citation. 316 U.S. 535, 62 S. Ct. 1110, 86 L. Ed. 1655, 1942 U.S. 493.
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Brief Fact Summary.

Under Oklahoma law, a person convicted a third time of certain specified crimes involving “moral turpitude” received the punishment of sterilization. Persons convicted a third time of other similar crimes were not. The constitutionality of this distinction was brought into question.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

When the law concerning those who have committed intrinsically the same type of offense punishes one, but not the other by depriving the one of a fundamental right, an invidious discrimination has been made.


Oklahoma’s Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act (the Act) defined a “habitual criminal” as a person who has been convicted three of more times for crimes involving moral turpitude. Such persons under Oklahoma law were to be rendered sexually sterile. Multiple violations for offenses involving “prohibitory laws” such as revenue acts, embezzlement or political offenses were exempted from punishment under the Act. Petitioner, convicted of stealing chickens for a third offense, was convicted under the Act. The alleged purpose of the law was to prevent the passing on to future generations of criminal traits.


Was the Act, calling for the sterilization of certain multiple offenders but not others, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution)?


Yes. The judgment affirmed by the Supreme Court of Oklahoma that the vasectomy be performed is reversed.
Justice William Douglas stated sterilization of repeat offenders of grand larceny, with immunity for repeat offenders of embezzlement, is an unmistakable discrimination. Oklahoma has put forward no proof, nor do we have any basis to conclude, that traits for crimes resulting in sterilization are any more inheritable than are traits for crimes exempt from sterilization. The right to procreate is one of the most basic civil rights.
Concurrence. Chief Justice Harlan Stone (J. Stone) concurred in the result. J. Stone I thought the real question, however, is whether the wholesale condemnation of a class to an invasion of personal liberty without the opportunity to prove he is not of the type the law presumes him to be, is a violation of due process.


The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) declares that the right implicated by the distinction here is a fundamental one, thereby subjecting the law to the strict scrutiny standard of review. Arguably, the Supreme Court could have invalidated the Oklahoma law, providing starkly differing treatment as between embezzlers and larceners, on the grounds of the rational basis standard of review.

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