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Buck v. Bell: 1927

Virginia Approaches Its Courts With A "solution", Carrie Buck As A Test Case, Supreme Court Reviews Case

Plaintiff: Carrie Buck
Defendant: Dr. J.H. Bell
Appellant's Claim: That Virginia's eugenic sterilization law violated Carrie Buck's constitutional rights
Chief Defense Lawyer: Aubrey E. Strode
Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Irving Whitehead
Justices: Louis D. Brandeis, Pierce Butler, Willis Van Devanter, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James C. McReynolds, Edward T. Sanford, Harlan F. Stone, George Sutherland and William N. Taft
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: May 2, 1927
Decision: Upheld as constitutional Virginia's compulsory sterilization of young women considered "unfit [to] continue their kind"

SIGNIFICANCE: Virginia's law served as a model for similar laws in 30 states, under which 50,000 U.S. citizens were sterilized without their consent. During the Nuremberg war trials, Nazi lawyers cited Buck v. Bellas acceptable precedent for the sterilization of 2 million people in its "Rassenhygiene" (race hygiene) program.

The Supreme Court's decision in Buck v. Bell resulted in only one letter of sympathy to the soon-to-be sterilized Carrie Buck and surprisingly little newspaper coverage. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote the decision, had no second thoughts. As he wrote in a letter later that month, "One decision… gave me pleasure, establishing the constitutionality of a law permitting the sterilization of imbeciles." The decision had far-reaching and disastrous consequences, however, not only for Carrie Buck—who was not "feebleminded" or retarded—but for many other similarly sterilized individuals and the peoples involved in World War II.

Emma Buck was the widowed mother of three small children, whom she supported through prostitution and with the help of charity until they were removed from her. On April 1, 1920, she was brought before Charlottesville, Virginia Justice of the Peace Charles D. Shackleford; after a cursory interview, Shackleford committed Emma Buck to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

At the age of three, Emma Buck's daughter Carrie had joined the family of J.T. and Alice Dobbs. Her school records indicate a normal progression through five years, until she was withdrawn from school by the Dobbs so that she could assume more of the family's housework. The Dobbs were completely satisfied until Carrie turned 17. Then, during what Carrie claimed was a rape by the Dobbs' son, she became pregnant.

The Dobbs brought Carrie before Shackleford and asked him to commit her to the Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded, as he had her mother. The Dobbs and their family doctor testified that Carrie was feebleminded; a second doctor agreed. That same day, January 24, 1924, Shackleford signed the order committing the second member of the Buck family to the state colony. The Dobbs institutionalized Carrie as soon as her daughter Vivian was born; they then raised the infant as their own.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940