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Sixth Circuit Rules Suit May Proceed Where State Judge Offered Reduced Sentences for Sterilization

by Douglas Ankney

On April 4, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a district court’s order that dismissed a lawsuit filed by former jail prisoners in White County, Tennessee as moot.

The case, brought by plaintiffs Christopher Sullivan, Nathan Haskell and William Gentry, alleged that White County General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause as a result of three orders he had issued in 2017. 

In the first order, Benningfield offered a 30-day sentence reduction to female prisoners who underwent a surgical implant of a Nexplanon birth control device. He also offered the same sentence credit to male prisoners who received vasectomies.

After intense, national media coverage, Benningfield issued a second order rescinding his initial offer, but specifying any prisoners who had already signed up to receive the credit would still get it without having to undergo sterilization. In a third order, Benningfield clarified that, as of the date of the second order, the offer was no longer available except to those prisoners who had signed up before the date of the second order – who would receive the sentence credit without being sterilized.

No White County jail prisoners actually underwent sterilization procedures.

The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct publicly reprimanded Judge Benningfield in November 2018, finding he had acted in a manner that caused members of the public to lose confidence in the judicial system. The reprimand was issued after PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann filed a formal complaint. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.36].

“Judges cannot exercise any sort of control they want over defendants in their courtrooms, just because they think they can,” Friedmann said at the time.

While the lawsuit filed by Sullivan, Haskell and Gentry was pending, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill (SB 2133) that prohibited courts from determining a sentence based on a defendant’s agreement to be sterilized. Due to that new law, in June 2018 the federal district court dismissed the case as moot on the grounds there was no longer a probability that the issues giving rise to the claims in the suit would recur.

The Sixth Circuit reversed on appeal.

“[T]he test for mootness,” the appellate court wrote, “is whether the relief sought would, if granted, make a difference to the legal interests of the parties.” Even though the plaintiffs had been released from jail, they would still benefit from the sentence credit because it would accelerate the date on which they could petition for expungement of their criminal convictions.

“Requiring inmates to waive a fundamental right [to procreate] to obtain a government benefit impermissibly burdens that right,” the Court of Appeals stated.

Further, while female prisoners could receive the sentence credit by receiving a surgically implanted device that could later be removed, male prisoners had to undergo irreversible vasectomies. That violated the Equal Protection Clause.

“When the government erects a barrier that makes it more difficult for members of one group to obtain a benefit than it is for members of another group,” the injury is “the denial of equal treatment, not the ultimate inability to obtain the benefit,” the appellate court wrote. 

Daniel Horowitz, counsel for the plaintiffs, praised the Sixth Circuit’s ruling, saying, “This decision sends a clear, important message that should never have been necessary in the first place: Inmate sterilization is illegal and unconstitutional.”

The ruling in this case provides a reasoned analysis of the doctrines of standing and mootness, as well as a limited discussion of equal protection claims. See: Sullivan v. Benningfield, 920 F.3d 401 (6th Cir. 2019). 

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Additional source: tennessean.com