Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson,
316 U.S. 535 (1942)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942)

Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson

No. 782

Argued May 6, 1942

Decided June 1, 1942

316 U.S. 535


1. A statute of Oklahoma provides for the sterilization, by vasectomy or salpingectomy, of "habitual criminals" -- an habitual criminal being defined therein as any person who, having been convicted two or more times, in Oklahoma or in any other State, of "felonies involving moral turpitude," is thereafter convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in Oklahoma for such a crime. Expressly excepted from the terms of the statute are certain offenses, including embezzlement. As applied to one who was convicted once of stealing chickens and twice of robbery, held that the statute violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. P. 316 U. S. 537.

2. The State Supreme Court having sustained the Act, as applied to the petitioner here, without reference to a severability clause, the question whether that clause would be so applied as to remove the particular constitutional objection is one which may appropriately be left for adjudication by the state court. P. 316 U. S. 542.

189 Okla. 235, 115 P.2d 123, reversed.

Page 316 U. S. 536

CERTIORARI, 315 U.S. 789, to review the affirmance of a judgment in a proceeding under the Oklahoma Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act, wherein it was ordered that the defendant (petitioner here) be made sterile.

Primary Holding

When fundamental rights are involved, a state can treat different groups differently, but it cannot exclude a certain group from treatment altogether if there is no rational basis to do so.


Oklahoma law provided that defendants who had received two or more convictions of crimes involving moral turpitude could be ordered to be sterilized as habitual offenders who had criminal genetic traits. Crimes that were not covered under the statute included violations of prohibitory laws, embezzlement, tax violations, and political offenses. The attorney general would need to initiate a proceeding to have the defendant sterilized, and the defendant would receive a full trial on the issues of whether he was a habitual offender and whether he should be sterilized. After his third conviction, Skinner was determined to be a habitual offender and ordered to be sterilized. He argued that the law was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.



  • William Orville Douglas (Author)
  • Owen Josephus Roberts
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Felix Frankfurter
  • Frank Murphy
  • James Francis Byrnes
  • Stanley Forman Reed

While the broader issue of whether any such law could be constitutional does not need to be reached, this law violates the equal protection rights granted by the Fourteenth Amendment. Strict scrutiny is appropriate when the state curtails the exercise of a fundamental right, such as the right to have children. Arbitrary distinctions among the treatment of certain groups generally are impermissible, since even the most lenient standard of review requires a rational basis for the state action. Defendants who are convicted of grand larceny or other crimes of moral turpitude are essentially no different from those convicted of embezzlement or the other offenses that are excluded from the law's coverage. There is no distinction between the gene traits of people who commit these varying types of offenses.


  • Harlan Fiske Stone (Author)

The statute is clearly unconstitutional, but the Due Process Clause is a more appropriate source for the decision than the Equal Protection Clause.


  • Robert Houghwout Jackson (Author)

Case Commentary

Strict scrutiny applied in this case because there was a fundamental right affected by the decision, although the law might not even have passed the rational basis standard of review because there can be no reason to distinguish so drastically among different versions of theft.

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