We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution, Level 3
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Lesson 3 Court Cases

Buck v. Bell (1927)
Facts of the Case:
Carrie Buck was a feeble minded woman who was committed to a state mental institution. Her condition had been present in her family for the last three generations. A Virginia law allowed for the sexual sterilization of inmates of institutions to promote the "health of the patient and the welfare of society." Before the procedure could be performed, however, a hearing was required to determine whether or not the operation was a wise thing to do.

Question:
Did the Virginia statute which authorized sterilization deny Buck the right to due process of the law and the equal protection of the laws as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment?

Conclusion:
No. The Court found that the statute did not violate the Constitution. Justice Holmes made clear that Buck's challenge was not upon the medical procedure involved but on the process of the substantive law. Since sterilization could not occur until a proper hearing had occurred (at which the patient and a guardian could be present) and after the Circuit Court of the County and the Supreme Court of Appeals had reviewed the case, if so requested by the patient. Only after "months of observation" could the operation take place. That was enough to satisfy the Court that there was no Constitutional violation. Citing the best interests of the state, Justice Holmes affirmed the value of a law like Virginia's in order to prevent the nation from "being swamped with incompetence...Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Citation
The Oyez Project, Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927) available at: (http://oyez.org/cases/1901-1939/1926/1926_292)


Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
Facts of the Case:
Griswold was the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut. Both she and the medical director for the League gave information, instruction, and other medical advice to married couples concerning birth control. Griswold and her colleague were convicted under a Connecticut law which criminalized the provision of counseling, and other medical treatment, to married persons for purposes of preventing conception.

Question:
Does the Constitution protect the right of marital privacy against state restrictions on a couple's ability to be counseled in the use of contraceptives?

Conclusion:
Yes. Though the Constitution does not explicitly protect a general right to privacy, the various guarantees within the Bill of Rights create penumbras, or zones, that establish a right to privacy. Together, the First, Third, Fourth, and Ninth Amendments, create a new constitutional right, the right to privacy in marital relations. The Connecticut statute conflicts with the exercise of this right and is therefore null and void.

Citation
The Oyez Project, Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965) available at: (http://oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1964/1964_496)


Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson (1942)
Facts of the Case:
Oklahoma's Criminal Sterilization Act allowed the state to sterilize a person who had been convicted three or more times of crimes "amounting to felonies involving moral turpitude."

Question:
Did the act violate the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Conclusion:
Yes. A unanimous Court held that the Act violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Since some crimes such as embezzlement, punishable as felonies in Oklahoma, were excluded from the act's jurisdiction, Justice Douglas reasoned that the law had laid "an unequal hand on those who have committed intrinsically the same quality of offense." Moreover, Douglas viewed procreation as one of the fundamental rights requiring the judiciary's strict scrutiny.

Citation
The Oyez Project, Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942) available at: (http://oyez.org/cases/1940-1949/1941/1941_782)

Lesson 3      What Historical Developments Influenced Modern Ideas of Individual Rights?
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