NC Court of Appeals Rules Against Eugenics Claimants' Constitutional Claims

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N.C.G.S. § 143B-426.52
N.C.G.S. § 143B-426.52

In a disappointing decision on June 6, the North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected the constitutional challenge brought by the heirs of three victims of the state’s eugenics program. In 2015, the Industrial Commission had denied their claims under the Eugenics Compensation Act because the victims had died before June 30, 2013.

North Carolina’s forced sterilization program lasted longer than any other state in the country. While most programs were shut down in the wake of World War II and the horrific revelations of the Nazi eugenics experiments, North Carolina continued and expanded its eugenics campaign until 1974. Between 1933 and 1974, more than 7,600 victims were forcibly sterilized. Thirty-eight years after the program ended, the General Assembly and the Governor enacted the Eugenics Compensation Act. The Act allowed victims and heirs of victims who survived until June 30, 2013 to file claims in the Industrial Commission for monetary compensation, which would be drawn in equal shares from a ten-million-dollar fund created by the Legislature. The deadline to file a claim was June 30, 2014. Although it was estimated that there were still 2,000 surviving victims at that time, no resources were allocated for outreach or assistance in filing for compensation. Only 780 claims were filed and even fewer—just 250—claims were eventually approved by the Industrial Commission.

The Center and UNC Law Professor Al Brophy submitted comments on the proposed compensation legislation in 2013, raising concerns about its terms as well as the lack of outreach to victims and their families. The Center, with help from UNC’s Pro Bono Program student volunteers and the Center’s client base across North Carolina, conducted outreach during the spring of 2014, and assisted approximately 100 individuals with their claims. Many of those individuals, most of whom received compensation, learned of the program from that outreach, just before the deadline to file claims.

The Center, with pro bono lawyer Ed Pressly of Statesville, represented heirs of three victims whose claims were denied because the victims died before June 30, 2013. The appeals argued that the statute of limitations violated the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions, and asserting that the court should apply heightened judicial scrutiny to the claim because the eugenics program violated the fundamental right to privacy over one’s body and right to family. In 2016, the Court of Appeals, in a split decision, dismissed the appeals on jurisdictional grounds. The North Carolina Supreme Court overturned that decision and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for a decision on the merits of the constitutional challenge. Immediately following the Supreme Court order that the constitutional issues be addressed on the merits, and given that the original appeal ignored those issues and only considered procedural matters, the Center moved the Court of Appeals to allow re-briefing and new oral argument, specifically on the appropriate level of scrutiny for the Court’s equal protection analysis. That motion was denied.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Chief Judge Linda McGee reasoned that the June 13, 2013 date limitation satisfied the “rational basis” test – the lowest level of scrutiny. Judge McGee highlighted several reasons supporting this conclusion including the following: (1) addition of heirs of deceased victims would severely limit the amount of compensation received by actual victims, (2) the challenge of determining legitimate heirs of deceased victims and (3) the purpose of the Program to emotionally vindicate the living victims, which could not be done with compensating the heirs of deceased victims.

“The decision is disappointing albeit unsurprising.” said Senior Staff Attorney Elizabeth Haddix. “Because the Court of Appeals denied our request for additional briefing and oral argument on the constitutional issues, we were unable to get the court to focus on what we think mattered most.”

Posted by Allen K. Buansi on Thu. June 8, 2017 4:12 PM
Categories: Sterilization
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