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Supreme Court Considers Oklahoma Punitive Sterilization Issue

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed in June, 1942, an Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling upholding punitive sterilization of a state prisoner. Petitioner Skinner was convicted in 1926 of the crime of stealing chickens and sent to prison. In 1929 and 1934 he was convicted of robbery with a firearm; the three convictions rendered him eligible for scrutiny under the newly created Oklahoma Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act of 1935.

The state of Oklahoma instituted proceedings against Skinner in 1936 seeking to impose the sanctions of the Sterilization Act. The two issues triable in such a proceeding are whether the defendant is a habitual offender and whether he is able to withstand the rigors of sterilization without permanent determent to his health. The qualifying criminal acts must reflect “moral turpitude.” Criminal acts exempt by statute from consideration included offenses arising out of the violation of the prohibitory laws, revenue acts, embezzlement, or political offenses.

The Sterilization Act has been challenged on several fronts: the questionable inheritability of criminal traits; due process; cruel and unusual punishment; and, as in the instant case, unequal protection under the law.

The U.S. Supreme Court in its opinion compared side-by-side the properties of larceny and embezzlement, noting that the two types of trespass are intrinsically the same, and the punishment is comparable, but repeated larceny renders the violator subject to sterilization while repeated embezzlement does not. The main difference, the Court noted, between the two crimes is the actual time when felonious intent formed in the mind of the perpetrator. The Supreme Court ruled there was clear, pointed, unmistakable discrimination in applying such a drastic, unremedied retribution to one and not the other.

The Court also noted in a concurring opinion that wholesale condemnation of a class to such an invasion of personal liberty, without opportunity to any individual to show that his is not the type of case which would justify resort to the Sterilization Act does not satisfy the demands of due process. See: Skinner v. State of Oklahoma., ex rel Williamson, 316 U.S. 535, (1942).

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Related legal case

Skinner v. State of Oklahoma., ex rel Williamson