NC Supreme Court Hears Argument on Eugenics Appeals

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 Elizabeth Haddix, Virginia Ingram, Mark Dorosin
Elizabeth Haddix, Virginia Ingram, Mark Dorosin
On February 13, the NC Supreme Court heard oral argument in appeals brought on behalf of three individuals who were forcibly sterilized by the State under North Carolina's forty-year eugenics program.  In 2015, the Industrial Commission denied their claims for compensation based solely on the fact that they died before June 30, 2013.  The eugenics compensation program was established to "make restitution for the injustices suffered" by the State's violation of one of the most fundamental human rights--the right to privacy of one's body and to bear children.  With the help of the UNC Center for Civil Rights and pro bono attorney Ed Pressley, the victims' heirs appealed to the Court of Appeals as required by the Eugenics Compensation Act and other statutory provisions, arguing that the arbitrary cutoff date violates their rights to equal protection under the North Carolina Constitution.   

At the Court of Appeals, the State for the first time argued that the 2014 adoption of G.S. 1-267.1 (the "Three Judge Panel Rule" for constitutional claims) divested the Court of Appeals of jurisdiction to hear these cases.   Two judges agreed, dismissing the appeals but directing the Industrial Commission to send the claims to a three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court.  Judge Dillon dissented, asserting that the later statute did not apply to administrative appeals.

The victims' heirs appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, and the State cross-appealed.  In its briefs, the State agreed that the court had jurisdiction, but at oral argument asserted that  the claims should be dismissed because claimants should have filed a separate Declaratory Judgement action in superior court, instead of relying on the detailed, expedited, and comprehensive administrative process established by the Eugenics Compensation Act.   

Some of the Justices seemed skeptical.  Justice Ervin asked if all administrative agency litigants with a constitutional claim would be limited to relief under the Declaratory Judgment Act.  The State responded that this deviation from the well-established jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals over administrative agencies applies only to claimants under the Eugenics Compensation Act.  In response to the State’s assertion that claimants would have to move to stay the proceedings in the Industrial Commission while they filed a separate action in superior court, Justice Hudson replied, "Or the State could just pay the claims."

It has been almost three years since these claims were filed.  Because of the way the State structured the compensation program (a lump sum divided equally among all recipients) every victim receiving compensation must wait until these appeals are resolved before the State can make the final payments.  UNC Center for Civil Rights attorneys Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin closed their argument by urging the Justices to invoke their discretionary authority to  resolve the merits of these claims now, rather than sending the case back to the Court of Appeals, which would likely delay resolution for another year.

Posted by Elizabeth M. Haddix on Wed. February 15, 2017 10:30 AM
Categories: Pro Bono, Sterilization
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