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
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
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 Amendmentcruel 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'.