June 1, 1942

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Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

In Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ most inglorious written opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927 upheld a Virginia law that authorized the involuntary sterilization of those in state custody deemed “hereditary imbeciles.”

Over the next 15 years, a politically powerful American eugenics movement blossomed and, armed with the court’s acquiescence, pressed more than half the states to pass forced-sterilization laws that grew increasingly broad in scope.

In 1936, inmate Jack T. Skinner, convicted of two armed robberies and a chicken theft, challenged Oklahoma’s Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act. Promoted by the state’s populist governor, the act required sterilization of “habitual criminals,” defined as anyone convicted of three crimes of “moral turpitude.”

Invoking due process and equal protection, a unanimous court declared the law unconstitutional. And although forced sterilization continued into the 1960s, the specter of Nazi atrocities and the lack of a clear court sanction eroded public support for the American eugenics movement and the laws it helped create.

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