It all began on July 31, 1934 at a service station in Oklahoma City when an attendant was robbed at gunpoint of $17. Nobody was injured and the gunman managed to get away despite having a noticeable limp. Acting on the physical description provided by the victim, Oklahoma police quickly tracked down and arrested 27-year-old Jack T. Skinner. A victim of domestic abuse at the hands of his stepfather, Skinner had left home as a teenager and often resorted to theft to support himself. Despite being physically frail (he was missing a foot due to an accident when he was fifteen), the judge at his trial had no hesitation in sentencing Skinner to ten years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma (a.k.a "Big Mac").
And that might have been all there is to the story except for the passing of Oklahoma's Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act in 1935. The act called for the mandatory sterilization of any Oklahoman convicted three or more times of crimes "amounting to felonies involving moral turpitude." Though the once-popular eugenics movement was slowly losing its appeal for many people, there was still enough political pressure to pass legislation calling for sterilization of anyone deemed "genetically unfit", including mental patients, people of low intelligence, and, in this case "habitual criminals." Interestingly enough, the Act specifically exempted white collar criminals or people convicted of "political wrongdoing", something that would come back to haunt the Oklahoma government later on.
Almost immediately after the Act passed, then-Attorney General Mac Q. Williamson began looking for convicts who could be used as test cases. The first petition under the Act was filed for a five-time-convicted convict named Hubert Moore. When news spread about the state was planning, riots broke out at various prisons across the state. Amid the chaos caused by the rioting, a number of inmates managed to escape, including Hubert Moore who likely took his impending sterilization a little personally. With his first test case on the run, Williamson then turned his attention to another inmate who qualified under the act: Jack Skinner.
Since Skinner had been convicted twice before (once for stealing chickens), he seemed like an ideal test candidate. Not that Skinner was particularly thrilled by the prospect. With money provided by his fellow inmates (who knew they would be on the "chopping block" as well), Skinner hired a lawyer and fought the sterilization order in court. The attorney, former state senator Claude Briggs, made the legal argument that the Sterilization Ac was unconstitutional since the offenses for which Skinner would be sterilized occurred before the law was even passed. He also referred to the forced vasectomy Skinner was fighting as "the largest penalty that a red-blooded, virile young man could be required to pay." Skinner, for his part, remained adamant about his determination to settle down after his release and to get married and start a family, something that seemed very much in doubt under the new Act.
For their part, the state defended the Act maintaining that sterilization wasn't punishment but rather a way of promoting the public welfare. One of the defenders of the Act was Oklahoma State Senator Louis Ritzhaupt, a physician and past president of State Medical Association. Long a champion of eugenics, Ritzhaupt testified that the law was designed "to stop the production of hereditary criminals." It was likely the political pressure brought on by Ritzhaupt and his fellow eugenicists that led the Oklahoma Supreme Court to uphold the law though it was was still a split decision (five judges for, four against).
Though stymied by the decision, Briggs, along with two new lawyers, Guy Andrews and H.I. Aston decided to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. This was a decidedly gutsy move given that the Supreme Court had already upheld previous sterilization decisions, including the infamous Buck v. Bell decision of 1927. It was Aston who personally rushed to Washington, D.C. to ensure that the motion for appeal would be heard before the deadline set by the court. As it happened, Skinner had already been released from prison by that time though he was still in danger of being sterilized.
After months of wrangling, the U.S. Supreme Court finally agreed to hear the case on January 12, 1942. In making their case before the court, Skinner's lawyers raised a number of key points: not only had two of Skinner's offenses occurred before the law was even passed, but it also represented double jeopardy since he would be effectively punished twice for the same offense. They also challenged the very nature of the law itself since white collar criminals were specifically excluded. This was a particular sticking point for the Supreme Court justices who asked Mac Williamson during oral arguments why chicken thieves should be sterilized and not embezzlers. Williamson was stuck for an answer aside from suggesting that chicken thieves were more likely to be violent.
In a final decision handed down on June 1, 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously to overturn Oklahoma's Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act. Not only did the justices insist that the Act violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment but Chief Justice William Douglas also wrote that, "We are dealing here with legislation which involves one of the most basic civil rights of man. Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence of the human 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 die."
While the decision didn't overturn the previous Buck vs. Bell decision, it certainly seemed that way to many state legislators dealing with sterilization laws in their own jurisdictions. It likely didn't help that World War II was already underway and that the Nazis were eugenics advocates as well. Ironically, while the rights of prisoners had been formally upheld by the Supreme Court, laws allowing for compulsory sterilization of psychiatric patients and residents of homes for the mentally disabled remained on the books in more than half of all U.S. states. More than a third of all sterilizations took place in California though many other states practiced sterilization as well. Though the laws still remain in some U.S. states, the use of eugenic theories to justify sterilization has long since been replaced by modern arguments about the need for sterilization to ensure better quality of life for patients.
Not that the United States was the only country to promote compulsory sterilization. Far from it. Along with Canada and Mexico, dozens of countries across Europe, Asia, South America, of European, Asia, and South America practiced sterilization right into the 1970s (and beyond in some cases) and court challenges advocating compensation for sterilized people remain common.
As for Jack T. Skinner, the man at the centre of the legal decision that still bears his name, he had already left Oklahoma by the time his case was heard. After moving to California with his wife, he settled down and started a dry cleaning business. He died in 1977, survived by his large family, including six grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. Yet another legacy that he left for the future...