Skinner v. Oklahoma
316 U.S. 535 (1942)

  • Under Oklahoma’s Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act of 1935, the State could sentence compulsory sterilization as part of their judgment against individuals who had been convicted three or more times of crimes “amounting to felonies involving moral turpitude.”
    • At the time, there was a scientific theory that criminal behavior was genetic, so the eugenics movement sought to better society by removing bad bloodlines from the population.
    • Because ‘white-collar crimes’ (like embezzlement) weren’t considered so bad, the law had an exemption for people convicted of those crimes.
  • Skinner had been convicted once for chicken-stealing and twice for armed robbery. Oklahoma attempted to sterilize him.
  • Skinner sued for an injunction, arguing that the Oklahoma law was an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection Clause because it exempted white-collar criminals.
  • The US Supreme Court found the Oklahoma law to be unconstitutional.
    • The US Supreme Court found that there was a fundamental right to procreation.
      • Because of the fundamental right involved, the Oklahoma law was subject to strict scrutiny review, and not simply rational basis review.
    • The Court found that under strict scrutiny, the distinction between white-collar crimes and other types of crimes was an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
  • Note that this case was not decided on substantive due process grounds or 8th Amendment cruel and unusual punishment grounds. Theoretically, under this decision, sterilization of criminals is still constitutional, as long as the Statute applies equally to all types of crimes.
    • At the time, the 8th Amendment had not been incorporated to apply to State law, and it is debatable as to whether sterilization could be considered ‘punishment’.