Skinner v Oklahoma: Fighting Oklahoma Prison Inmate Sterilization
Skinner v Oklahoma (1942) was a Supreme Court Case that challenged the state's ability to use force to sterilize "habitual criminals." The case challenged the Oklahoma Habitual Sterilization Law that excluded white collar criminals but forced sterilization on others. This case worked its way to the United States Supreme Court and challenged eugenic practices that aimed to restrict who could and could not procreate, common in many parts of the United States. Ultimately, this case was narrowly interpreted by the United States Supreme Court, leaving the constitutionality of eugenic sterilization laws untouched, but striking down the Oklahoma law as unconstitutional on the basis of the equal protection clause, as the law targeted certain inmate populations.
Backstory and Context
Skinner v Oklahoma is a case that originated after a McAlester Prison inmate named Jack T. Skinner challenged the Oklahoma Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act of 1935. In 1942, the case worked its way up from McAlester, Oklahoma all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The sterilization law on the books in Oklahoma was rooted in eugenics, a belief that society could be improved through selective reproduction that favored certain people and traits. This case focused on how the law based on eugenics principles, unfairly targeted poorer individuals in prison. In order to focus on specific prison populations, the law used the term "habitual criminals," providing a two strikes policy that could potentially result in the individual being sterilized, based on the type of crimes committed. While this law seems foreign by today's standards, there were many states with similar eugenics laws on the books, highlighting the significance of this issue and in turn the significance of this case. The Skinner case sought to challenge the legitimacy of this law and while it did not completely unravel the constitutionality of eugenics and sterilization, it ultimately was successful at preventing discriminatory sterilization laws.
Eugenics is a theory that seeks to control the human population by selectively determining who is and who is not fit for reproduction. This takes selective reproduction to another level, allowing the legal system to determine what human traits are desirable; and from there, the state can restrict certain populations from reproducing. One of the most significant actions taken to implement racist and classist eugenics would be sterilization, as seen within Oklahoma with the Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act. One of the most recognizable examples of eugenics would be in Hitler's Nazi Germany; and, after World War II this theory lost support in the US. Before eugenics lost favor with the American public, there was widespread concern about the population being overwhelmed by the "feeble-minded" or habitual criminals, and eugenics became the basis for the argument in favor of sterilization. With this theory of eugenics as a tool to control populations and reproduction, it is laced throughout the Oklahoma sterilization law of 1935. Oklahoma sterilized over 550 individuals since the 1930s, most of whom were female, but this does not include numbers of Native American women who were sterilized in Oklahoma up until the 70s. This statistic shows the scale at which sterilization was occurring in Oklahoma, often on the basis of eugenics principles. This practice, however, is not unique to Oklahoma. 30 states had laws on the books that made forced sterilization on the basis of eugenics principles, legal. This resulted in "approximately 350,000 compulsory sterilizations" between the years 1934-1945. Eugenics and sterilization were flourishing around the world and the country, and this case, Skinner v Oklahoma, sought to challenge this practice, at least for male prison inmates.
The Oklahoma Habitual Criminal Sterilization Law of 1935 defines a habitual criminal as "a person who, having been convicted two or more times for crimes amounting to felonies involving moral turpitude either in an Oklahoma court or in a court of any other state." There were individuals in support of this law felt that it would create a better society, but they did recognize the sensitivity of the issue and believed that individuals who were chosen for the procedure needed to be selected carefully and with much consideration. However, with the implementation of this law, white-collar crime was not defined as "involving moral turpitude," leaving poorer individuals as targets of this law, like Jack Skinner who was imprisoned three times, one of which was for stealing chickens. As explained above, this law is rooted in eugenics principles, attempting to restrict who can have children. Even without scientific research to back up the claim that criminal behavior was hereditary, sterilization seemed to be a reasonable method to purify the citizenry from habitual criminals.
Jack Skinner challenged the state's decision to sterilize him, hoping to avoid sterilization; but, his team took a deeper approach with their argument in the case, believing that the Oklahoma Habitual Criminal Law was unfairly targeting poorer imprisoned men while completely ignoring men who were committing white-collar crime. While he lost his case in Oklahoma, where the Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the sterilization law, the case was eventually appealed to the US Supreme Court. They fought the case by arguing that the law was in violation of the 14th amendment and its Equal Protection Clause. Skinner and his lawyers took an approach that emphasized the differential treatment between certain crimes as the basis for sterilization, arguing that the sterilization law was not being applied equally to all inmates and all varieties of crime.
The Supreme Court made a fairly narrow decision on this case, only looking at the constitutionality of the specific Oklahoma Habitual Criminal Sterilization Law. They did not make any judgment on the wider issues of eugenics or sterilization. The decision, however, was unanimous, declaring that law was in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. One justice also stated that it violated the Due Process Clause. Their rationale for this decision was based on the fact that certain crimes like embezzlement were not included in the law, meaning that it was discriminately selecting who would and would not be subject to sterilization without justification. However, the court did not make any decision with regard to the wider issue of eugenics or sterilization. The only statements made with regard to the legality of compulsory sterilization was that it is a serious act and should be subject to strict scrutiny. Ultimately, this case took the stance that sterilization laws were constitutional so long as they were equally applied to all members of society, where no one group could be exempt if they, their behavior, or their crime fit within the definition of a “habitual criminal.” But, it also has wider implications with regard to equal protection.
Not only is Skinner v Oklahoma a case that challenges the societal and cultural norms of Oklahoma, and America at large in the early 20th century, it seeks to establish and protect individual rights and uphold equal protection under the law. Ultimately, this case proved to be of significant importance in Oklahoma because very few individuals were sterilized after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Skinner v Oklahoma was a landmark case that struck down an Oklahoma sterilization law that unfairly targeted certain populations based on eugenics principles, helping aid the fight against eugenics and compulsory sterilization in the United States.
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