During the 1930's and 40's, Oklahoma had on its books the
Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act.
This Act permitted the Attorney General of the State to initiate
proceedings against habitual criminals that would render the
criminal person sexually sterile.
You were a candidate for sterilization if (1) you were a
habitual criminal and (2) it was not detrimental to your health.
The Act directed that men were to be rendered sterile by
vasectomy and females by salpingectomy.
The Act also provided that
"offenses arising out of the violation of the prohibitory laws,
revenue acts, embezzlement, or political offenses, shall not
come or be considered within the terms of this Act."
In 1926, Skinner was convicted of stealing chickens, and in
1929 and 1934 he was convicted of robbery with a firearm.
In 1936 the Attorney General instituted sterilization
proceedings against him.
The Supreme Court of Oklahoma affirmed a lower court judgment
against Skinner directing the performance of a vasectomy.
Skinner - No Opportunity to be heard
It is argued that due process is lacking because, under this
Act, unlike the Act upheld in Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200,
the defendant is given no
opportunity to be heard on the issue as to whether he is the
probable potential parent of socially undesirable offspring.
Skinner - Cruel and unusual punishment
The Act is penal in character and that the sterilization
provided for is cruel and unusual punishment and violative of
the Fourteenth Amendment.
- Fails Equal protection requirements
[It] fail[s] to meet the requirements of the equal protection
clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
- Example of Inequities (Chicken [Larceny] vs. Embezzlement)
The law does apply to larceny but not to embezzlement.
Both involve taking money from another, and both are felonies,
yet only one will subject a person to sterilization
person who enters a chicken coop and steals chickens commits a
felony and he may be sterilized if he is thrice convicted.
If, however, he is a bailee of the property and fraudulently
appropriates it, he is an embezzler.
Hence, no matter how habitual his proclivities for embezzlement
are and no matter how often his conviction, he may not be
sterilized. Thus, the nature of the two crimes is intrinsically
the same and they are punishable in the same manner.
- This legislation deals with one of the basic civil rights of
We are dealing here with legislation which 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 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 and disappear.
He is forever deprived of a basic liberty.
- Strict Scrutiny of sterilization show the law to be invidious,
in violation of EP
Strict scrutiny of the classification which a State makes in a
sterilization law is essential, lest unwittingly, or otherwise,
invidious discriminations are made against groups or types of
individuals in violation of the constitutional guaranty of just
and equal laws.
The guaranty of "equal protection of the laws is a pledge of the
protection of equal laws." Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356,
When the law lays an unequal hand on those who have committed
intrinsically the same quality of offense and sterilizes one and
not the other, it has made as invidious a discrimination as if
it had selected a particular race or nationality for oppressive
- No attempt to show biological inheritable traits
Oklahoma makes no attempt to say that he who commits larceny by
trespass has biologically inheritable traits which he who
commits embezzlement lacks.
We have not the slightest basis for inferring that the line has
any significance in eugenics [selective breeding to improve
human genetics], nor that the inheritability of criminal traits
follows the neat legal distinctions which the law has marked
between those two offenses.
- Differs on sterilization
In terms of fines and imprisonment, the penalties for each are
Only when it comes to sterilization are the pains and penalties
The equal protection clause would be a formula of empty words if
such conspicuously artificial lines could be drawn.
Concurring - Chief Justice Stone
Does not think the equal protection clause needed to be used.
Due Process instead of Equal Protection
The real question should be considered is not one of equal
protection, but whether the
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
it, satisfies the demands of due process.
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 first principles of
The state is called on to sacrifice no permissible end when it
is required to reach its objective by a reasonable and just
procedure adequate to safeguard rights of the individual which
concededly the Constitution protects.