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Skinner v. Oklahoma


The ruling, the first modern fundamental rights decision by the Court, recognized marriage and procreation (to have children) as basic civil liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. In addition, the Court applied the "substantive due process" doctrine, previously reserved only for issues involving economic rights, to personal rights and liberties. Other rights similarly recognized over the next 30 years were voting, privacy, interstate travel, and access to justice. Because none of these rights are clearly provided in the Constitution, much public debate grew concerning their legal validity, including within the Court itself.

Following the Civil War, three amendments were added to the Constitution, including the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. Section 1 of the amendment reads, "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." For many years courts applied the Due Process Clause to questions of procedure when states treated classifications of people differently. By the late nineteenth century, the Court added a "substantive" element to due process deliberations by asserting the courts' role was to assess the character of the activity being regulated, not just the manner of the regulation process.

Until the 1920s, the Court applied substantive due process review procedures only to state laws regulating economic and property rights, such as wage and hour laws and price regulation. Then, in 1923 for the first time the Court recognized a noneconomic fundamental right, the right to acquire knowledge through education. The Court held in Meyer v. Nebraska certain personal rights not described in the Constitution exist that enable individuals "to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men."

Early in the twentieth century, a number of laws were passed across the nation establishing sterilization programs to rid the nation of "undesirables." Shortly after passage of a 1924 Virginia law the first question concerning application of state sterilization came to the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927). The Court upheld the Virginia law and approved the sterilization of Carrie Buck, an 18-year old "feeble-minded" woman held in a state institution. Buck's mental condition was clearly evident in three generations of her family, indicating it was genetically transmittable. The Court held that the sterilization of Buck was best for society and due process had been adequately served.

The protection of personal rights was yet to gain prominence. However, the era of the Court reviewing economic regulation law did come to an end during the 1930s under pressures stemming from the Great Depression and New Deal policies. The Court, as customary, relied on the best judgement of legislators in restricting individual behavior and applied relatively weak tests in assessing fairness.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Skinner v. Oklahoma - Significance, Oklahoma Prisoner Sterilization, Marriage And Procreation Rights, Impact, Further Readings