Weekly Read: Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

– Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, 207 (1927)

In the rogues gallery of bad Supreme Court decisions – things like Dred Scott, Plessy, and Korematsu  – few had summed their own awfulness up so succinctly as Buck v. Bell, in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s law allowing the forced sterilization of the “feeble minded.” The decision was nearly unanimous (the lone dissenter didn’t write an opinion explaining his vote) and, horrifically, it is still “good law” in the 21st Century (a claim is shares with Korematsu).

Imbeciles, by lawyer turned journalist Adam Cohen, isn’t a deep legal analysis of Buck itself. Instead, it tells the story of the case by focusing on four people involved in it. First (and last) is Carrie Buck, the Virginia woman eventually sterilized for being “feeble minded.” Second is Albert Priddy, who ran the Virginia institution where Buck was committed prior to her sterilization (he dropped out before the case hit the Court, being replaced by Bell). Third is Aubrey Strode, the Virginia legislator and lawyer who helped pass the law and then defend it in court. Finally, there’s Olive Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court Justice who authored the opinion. The result is an interesting, depressing, and angering story that provides a lot of needed background to the Court’s brief (5 paragraphs) opinion.

Cohen structures the book so that we begin with Buck’s life up to the case began and end with her life after her sterilization. In between, we get a chapter each on the background of the other guys and then a chapter covering their intersection with the case. It’s a fairly effective way to structure things, although not carried off very creatively (each chapter title is just someone’s name, like a George R.R. Martin tome). It also leads to some redundancy, particularly as Cohen uses Priddy’s and Strode’s background chapters as means to sketch out the broader picture of the eugenics movement.

That movement, though eventually discredited and forgotten (the Nazis being enthusiastic adopters of eugenics helped it slip down the memory hole), echoes in the 21st Century political diatribes about immigration and wall building. Indeed, the sterilization arguments were basically the same as the arguments for restricting the immigration of “undesirables,” with the added twist of them already being in the United States. Beyond that, sterilization was largely a way for society to deal with a perceived problem on the cheap – it was too expensive to warehouse the “feeble minded” in a more beneficent way. Sterilization followed by release into society was cheap, easy, and, thanks to the Supreme Court, perfectly legal.

I’ve read some complaints from readers that Cohen spends too much time diving into the biographies of his subjects, to the detriment of a broader understanding of the eugenics movement. I think that misses the point, somewhat. Cohen presents a good argument that Buck v. Bell was as much the result of those biographies as it was legal theory or factual findings. It’s not a complete success (Holmes may have been predisposed to support eugenics, but this wasn’t a close case), but I find it fairly persuasive. For example, see here for a law review article putting Holmes’s vote down his experiences during the Civil War (something Cohen touches on).

The personal relationships explain how the law’s most dubious component came into being. Strode drafted the law, perhaps in a way that meant to slow down its implementation. For example, he refused calls to have the sterilization scheme applied to all Virginians, rather than only those in state custody. Similar provisions in other states had been struck down on equal protection grounds. Cohen argues that while Strode was a skilled lawyer and advocate, he wasn’t the eugenic evangelist that Priddy and others were.

One of those provisions of the law was a requirement that it not go into effect until the Supreme Court approved it. On the face of it, this seems like a good thing – why not wait for the high court to weigh in? But that’s not the way the American legal system is designed to function. Courts (up to and including the Supreme Court) only adjudicate live “cases and controversies” – meaning actual disputes that require a resolution. That’s why issues of standing are so important, as there can be no actual dispute if someone doesn’t have the ability to seek redress against the other party. Our system is designed to allow two interested parties to argue against each other, present evidence to support their claims, and ultimately allow a neutral third party to pick a winner. It’s trial by combat, only less bloody and more mentally taxing.

By requiring the Virginia law to be blessed by the Supreme Court before it went into effect, Strode effectively set the stage for the farce that was Buck v. Bell. Cohen lays out how Priddy, Strode and others essentially conspired to produce a “test case” for the Court. Now, test cases and strategic litigation on social issues isn’t a bad thing – the one that always stands out to me is how the plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education was chosen partly because the black school she attended was actually better than the closer white school she would have otherwise attended (that took the idea that it was separate, but not equal, off the table and forced the discrimination issue to the fore). But that’s different than a setup. Buck v. Bell was a setup.

That was largely true for two reasons. First, Buck herself was largely kept in the dark about the whole thing, both the operation to sterilize her and the litigation about it. It’s hard to have a real case or controversy if the plaintiff isn’t really driving the bus. Second, and more importantly, Buck’s lawyer, Whitehead, was in on it from the get go. He was friends with Strode and Priddy and did nothing that a competent lawyer would think of as competent. With only token resistance, Strode rolled through the courts and up to the Supreme Court, getting the ruling everybody wanted (and needed). This is, perhaps, the biggest flaw in Cohen’s argument that Strode wasn’t quite as on board with eugenic sterilization as the rest of those involved – he knew how the system was supposed to work and proceeded with the farce, anyway.

Ultimately, the focus is on Carrie Buck, who opens and closes the book. It’s a natural through line for the story of her particular case (obviously), but a little bit dangerous as a thread holding together a book about eugenics as a broader movement. That’s because, as Cohen makes clear again and again, there simply wasn’t evidence to support the conclusion that Buck was “feeble minded.” In fact, she appears to have been a perfectly normal person of average intelligence. As a result, the book comes dangerously close to suggesting that the real injustice is that Buck wasn’t actually a moron, rather than the state mandated sterilization of anybody. It’s a bit like telling the story of prison overcrowding through the eyes of someone who was wrongfully convicted. It’s powerful, but perhaps not for the right reason.

Imbeciles is a compelling story of a Supreme Court case, the people who guided it, and the woman who got caught up in its wake. Highly recommended.



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