The Stone Court (1941–46)

Commerce Clause

How did the Stone Court rule with respect to criminal sterilization laws?

The Stone Court unanimously struck down Oklahoma’s criminal sterilization law in Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942). The law allowed state officials to order the sterilization of certain habitual criminals. Officials sought to apply the law to Jack Skinner, who had been convicted three different times for stealing. When he was nineteen, officials charged him with stealing chickens. Later, he committed armed robbery twice. After his third conviction, state officials ordered Skinner to submit to a vasectomy. The law, however, provided an exemption for crimes of embezzlement and political crimes. The Court ruled that the law violated equal protection because it subjected repeat-larceny offenders to sterilization while exempting those who committed more white-collar crimes. “We are dealing here with legislation which involves one of the basic civil rights of man,” Justice William O. Douglas wrote. “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 a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone said that the case should be decided on due process, rather than equal-protection, grounds. He reasoned that the law violated due process because Skinner was not afforded a valid hearing process in which Skinner could show he was not a habitual criminal who would pass these traits to his children. Justice Robert Jackson also authored a concurring opinion, noting that the state does not have unlimited power to “conduct biological experiments at the expense of the dignity and personality and natural powers of a minority—even those who have been guilty of what the majority define as crimes.”


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