Tag Archives: Equal Protection

White County, Tennessee Inmate Sterilization Program Terminated By Historic Order

Federal court orders that controversial sterilization program be rescinded; White County officials to pay Plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees, permanently enjoined from making or enforcing any sentencing determination that is based “in whole or in part upon a defendant’s consent—or refusal to consent—to becoming permanently or temporarily sterilized.”

Following an historic reversal at the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit last month, an inmate sterilization program instituted by two White County, Tennessee officials has finally come to an end.  The landmark order comes nearly two years after a trio of inmates at the White County jail filed suit against White County General Sessions Court Judge Sam Benningfield—the architect of the program—and the White County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that the program violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process clauses.

A consent decree approved by the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee earlier today formally terminates the controversial inmate sterilization program, compelling Judge Benningfield to rescind each of his standing orders regarding the program “in their entirety,” effective immediately.  The Court’s order also permanently enjoins both Judge Benningfield and the White County Sheriff’s Office “from making or enforcing any sentencing determination that is based in whole or in part upon a defendant’s consent—or refusal to consent—to becoming permanently or temporarily sterilized” at any point in the future.  Judge Benningfield and the White County Sheriff were further ordered to pay the costs of the lawsuit and the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees, which the order provides “shall be donated by Plaintiffs’ counsel to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Tuskegee History Center.”  Each of the three inmates who sued after refusing to become sterilized also received a 30-day sentencing credit toward a future expungement.

“Inmate sterilization is despicable, it is morally indefensible, and it is illegal,” said Daniel Horwitz, a Nashville-based constitutional lawyer who represented the inmates along with Richard Brooks. “Let this historic order serve as a warning: Whether you are a sitting Judge, a Sheriff who is ‘just following orders,’ or any other government official, if you violate the Constitution, you will be held accountable.”

The Consent Decree and Final Order approved by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee and additional case documents regarding the program appear below.

Consent Decree and Final Order

6th Circuit Opinion Reversing District Court

Plaintiffs’ Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief

Plaintiffs’ Memorandum in Support of Summary Judgment

6th Circuit Brief of Plaintiffs-Appellants

Selected Media Coverage:

-The Tennessean: Federal court order officially ends Tennessee ‘inmate sterilization’ program

-Vice: A Tennessee County Wanted to Sterilize Inmates for Shorter Sentences. That’s Over Now.

-Fox 17: Tennessee inmates win suit against judge who offered sentencing credits for sterilization

-IFL: Federal Court Ends Tennessee’s Controversial Inmate Sterilization Program

-News Channel 5: White County Inmate Sterilization Program terminated by federal ruling

-The Tennessean: Court revives lawsuit against judge who shortened jail time if inmates got ‘sterilized’

-The Washington Post: Tennessee judge reprimanded for offering reduced jail time in exchange for sterilization

-The Tennessean: 2nd lawsuit challenges Tennessee county’s inmate birth control practice

-WSMV Channel 4: Judge under scrutiny for offering reduced sentences for vasectomies, birth control implants

-BBC News: ‘We were guinea pigs’: Jailed inmates agreed to birth control

-ScotBlog: Lawsuit Seeks to End White County’s Ongoing Sterilization Program

Idaho’s “Ag-Gag” Bill Struck Down on Federal Constitutional Grounds

By Daniel A. Horwitz

This Monday, a federal judge issued a potentially groundbreaking ruling that an Idaho law  that sought to criminalize undercover documentation of animal abuse is unconstitutional.  According to the judge’s memorandum opinion and order, the law in question violates both the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The judge explained:

“§ 18-7042 seeks to limit and punish those who speak out on topics relating to the agricultural industry, striking at the heart of important First Amendment values. The effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance: the safety of the public food supply, the safety of agricultural workers, the treatment and health of farm animals, and the impact of business activities on the environment.”

The law was challenged by a coalition of non-profit groups including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, and the Center for Food Safety, which argued that the law criminalized whistleblowing and violated the First Amendment.[1]  An amicus curiae brief was also filed in support of these groups by legendary First Amendment scholar and Dean of Irvine School of Law Erwin Chemerinsky, who successfully argued that the law unjustifiably discriminated on the basis of a fundamental right — in this case, free speech — by drawing an unconstitutional classification based on the speech’s content.

Many will remember that the Tennessee General Assembly passed a similar law amid great controversy back in 2013, only to have it vetoed by Governor Haslam after numerous animal rights activists—most notably, Carrie Underwood—waged a vigorous public relations campaign seeking to expose the bill’s true intent:  To suppress documentation of animal abuse in the agriculture industry.  Similar campaigns outside of Tennessee were far less successful, however, leading to the enactment of “ag-gag” laws in several states, including Idaho.  Monday’s ruling, however, marks the first time that an “ag-gag” law has ever been struck down in court, seriously calling into question the validity of the seven similar laws that have been enacted across the country.[2]

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

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[1] Zach Kyle and Cynthia Sewell, Federal judge strikes down Idaho’s ‘ag-gag’ law, Idaho Statesman (Aug. 3, 2015), http://www.idahostatesman.com/2015/08/03/3922838_judge-strikes-down-idaho-ag-gag.html?rh=1.

[2] See Natasha Geiling, Federal Judge Rules Idaho Ag-Gag Law Unconstitutional, ThinkProgress (Aug. 4, 2015, 12:13PM), http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/08/04/3687617/idaho-ag-gag-law-unconstitutional/.