Bad Cases Set Bad Precedents

In my constitutional law class, my professor always had a saying about how the Supreme Court’s dicey decisions on issues such as obcsenity, torture, and segregation lead to bad outcomes. That saying was “bad cases lead to bad precedents.”

There is no case that represents this saying better than Buck v. Bell. This now infamous case dealt with a Virginia eugenics laws in which the Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision upheld that states could forcibly sterilized “feeble minded” people from “polluting” the gene pool. This case in effect allowed for the states, through state-run eugenics laboratories to deem certain people a danger to the genetic purity of society, then have them sterilized as a matter of public health. In the decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes summed up the decision by stating, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” It was later discovered that Carrie Buck, the defendant, had been raped by her foster’ parents nephew. The designation of feeblemindness was given to her to delegitmize her claims.

Fast forward to today and we now have the case of 57-year old Elaine Riddick. At the age of 14, Riddick was raped, which led to her getting pregnant. The state of North Carolina determined that she was “feeble minded,” a.k.a. a poor black girl, and on the day of her child’s birth forcibly sterilized her. Now the state of North Carolina is possibly going to pay her $20,000, as well as the same amount to other victims of this policy. An estimated 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized under state programs like the one that was used on Riddick.

According to the article,

Most of the sterilization laws, including North Carolina’s, were written to give states immunity from lawsuits. North Carolina would have to set aside $69 million to pay all of the surviving victims. That’s something lawmakers have not yet been willing to do.

Now, when our country is in dire financial straights, the taxpayers of today are having to make up for the egregious mistakes in the past. This situtation shows just how important an understanding of liberty is to protect individuals from predatory state programs like eugenics laws. Even a basic understanding of human rights would have prevented this from occuring. Now Elaine Riddick is forced to deal with budgetary problems when she is only seeking basic restitution. A bad case setting bad precedent and now those who are responsible are long gone and were left to clean up the mess.

Side Note:  Buck v. Bell was never fully overturned, however in the case of Skinner v. Oklahoma punitive sterilization, as punishment for a crime, was found to be unconstitutional.

Published in

Post a comment