18 Pages Posted: 3 Aug 2012
Date Written: August 3, 2012
Some constitutional tragedies are well known: Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu v. United States are taught to every first-year law student. Buck v. Bell is not. Decided in 1927 by the Taft Court, the case is known for its shocking remedy -- sterilization -- and Justice Holmes's dramatic rhetoric: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." A mere five paragraphs long, Buck v. Bell could represent the highest ratio of injustice per word ever signed on to by eight Supreme Court Justices, progressive and conservative alike.
Buck v. Bell is not a tragedy as some others might define tragedy: it is not a well-known opinion, nor did it yield wide popular criticism; it sits as a quiet evil, a tragedy of indifference to the Constitution and its most basic principles. To include Buck as a tragic opinion is to recognize what Hannah Arendt once dubbed the "banality of evil." Even if grounded in eugenic assumptions widely held at the time, Buck v. Bell was an utterly lawless decision. Holmes treated Carrie Buck's constitutional claims with contempt. The opinion cites no constitutional text or principle emanating from the text. The only "law" in the opinion must be unearthed from a lost constitutional history embedded in a factual exegesis full of disdain for the Constitution and humanity itself. Few human tragedies can be greater "than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within." A lawless legitimation of such a principle -- one of natural aristocracy -- flies in the face of the very constitutional principles on which our nation was founded.
Keywords: Supreme Court, due process, sterilization laws, constitutional law, Fourteenth Amendment
JEL Classification: K00, K30, K39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation
Nourse, Victoria, Buck v. Bell: A Constitutional Tragedy from a Lost World (August 3, 2012). Pepperdine Law Review, Vol. 39, pp. 101-117, 2011; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 12-094. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2109738