CINCINNATI (CN) — Three inmates who challenged a Tennessee prison’s short-lived policy of providing sentencing credits for vasectomies will have their day in court, after a Sixth Circuit ruling Thursday.
The White County policy, which granted 30-day sentencing credits to inmates who submitted to sterilization, was initiated by General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield in May 2017.
Benningfield rescinded the order two months later after it was widely criticized, and Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation making the practice illegal in May 2018.
Three inmates who chose not to have vasectomies sued Benningfield, but their case was dismissed by a federal judge who found they lacked standing for failing to show injury or the imminent threat of a future injury.
The case was argued before a Sixth Circuit panel in January, and on Thursday the circuit remanded for consideration of the inmates’ claims on the merits.
Chief Sixth Circuit Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. wrote the opinion, disputing the lower court’s finding that the inmates failed to identify a concrete and particularized injury.
“Plaintiffs have identified two potential injuries in fact: differential treatment that burdens the fundamental right to procreate, and differential treatment based on sex,” Cole wrote.
He continued: “Plaintiffs allege that Judge Benningfield specifically ordered that inmates would be awarded a 30-day sentencing credit in exchange for their agreement to undergo sterilization. They further allege that the same credit was not available to inmates who chose not to forfeit their procreative rights. Requiring inmates to waive a fundamental right to obtain a government benefit impermissibly burdens that right.”
Cole found the inmates did have standing to bring claims for sex discrimination, as female inmates had the option of obtaining a Nexplanon implant, which would render them sterile but could be removed later.
“[T]he evidence and allegations before this court confirm that plaintiffs adequately alleged that defendants ‘erect[ed] a barrier that ma[de] it more difficult for members of one group’ – male inmates – ‘to obtain a benefit’ – sentencing credits – ‘than it [wa]s for members of another group’ – female inmates,” Cole wrote.
Benningfield argued that even if the inmates had standing to pursue their claims, they were mooted by legislation, but the panel disagreed.
Cole noted that legislation does not immediately render a case moot, and because sentencing credits are still being disbursed to inmates who volunteered for sterilization, the “order did not end the challenged deferential treatment.”
Benningfield also claimed that because all three inmates have been released from prison, the sentencing credits would provide no benefit to them, but the panel disagreed.
Cole conceded that the inmates cannot get back the 30 days they served in prison, but concluded that because the inmates would be able to pursue expungement 30 days sooner had they been granted the credits, their release from jail did not moot their claims.
Sixth Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore joined Cole in the majority, while Senior Sixth Circuit Judge Richard F. Suhrheinrich wrote a brief dissent.
“None of the plaintiffs suffered any injury in this case,” Suhrheinrich wrote. “Plaintiffs’ sentences were not increased; rather they served their sentences as originally ordered.
“Being offered contraceptive services, even being encouraged to accept free contraceptive services, is not an injury in fact for purposes of standing. Plaintiffs did not receive the vasectomies and their right to procreate has not been hindered in any way.”