‘Empathy’ on 1927 Supreme Court might have saved thousands from the knife
Michael Hiltzik - June 4, 2009
One of the great things about Senate confirmations of Supreme Court justices is that they help us develop a long-term perspective on the workings of the highest tribunal in the land.
For instance, when the political fight broke out over Sonia Sotomayor’s assertion that a judge’s ethnic and socioeconomic background might actually influence how he or she interprets the law, I cracked the history books to find support for that fairly obvious point.
The best illustration turns out to be a 1927 case known as Buck vs. Bell. Or as it might otherwise be known, the case of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the imbeciles.
Holmes, perhaps the most revered of all Supreme Court justices, was always proud of his opinion in Buck vs. Bell, which upheld a Virginia law allowing the forced sterilization of “mental defectives.” Yet the terse ruling proclaims, in each of its four chilling paragraphs, the narrow elitism of his personal life experience. And its consequence was tens of thousands of ruined lives over the next half-century.