Sixth Circuit Hears Debate Over Rewarding Inmate Vasectomies

CINCINNATI (CN) – The constitutionality of a discontinued Tennessee county policy that gave inmates a jail-time credit if they had a vasectomy was debated before a Sixth Circuit panel Tuesday.

White County General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield issued a “standing order” in May 2017 that gave a 30-day credit to any male inmate who chose to have a free vasectomy. Female inmates were also offered the jail-time credit in exchange for the implantation of a sterilizing device.

After widespread criticism, however, Benningfield rescinded the order just over two months later, in July 2017.

Three male inmates that had chosen not to get a vasectomy filed a complaint against Judge Benningfield, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief for constitutional violations.

The lawsuit described the policy as a “eugenics program” and called it “patently and egregiously unconstitutional,” while alluding to “mass sterilizations in Nazi Germany.”

All three plaintiffs have since completed their sentences and have been released from prison.

In addition to Benningfield’s revocation of the initial order, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam made the practice illegal in May 2018 with the passage of Senate Bill 2133.

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw Jr. dismissed the inmates’ complaint for lack of standing last June, ruling they failed to prove any past injury or imminent threat of future injury.

“Plaintiffs did not serve longer than they were originally sentenced because they did not agree to vasectomies,” the judge wrote. “Their claim actually concerns whether the alleged denial of a sentence credit violated their constitutional rights. Plaintiffs have not alleged a viable constitutional right to a sentence credit.”

Judge Crenshaw also determined the inmates’ claims had been mooted, not only because the original order had been rescinded, but also by Governor Haslam’s approval of SB 2133.

Attorney Daniel Horwitz argued Tuesday on behalf of the inmates, and detailed the relief sought by his clients as a result of what he called an “inmate sterilization program.”

Horwitz told the Sixth Circuit panel of judges his clients seek an injunction to prevent any promised sentence credits from being handed out in the future.

“I thought this was a one-time thing,” remarked U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore.

“Sentencing credits are still being disbursed,” Horwitz replied.

The attorney went on to explain that even though the program has been discontinued, the credits promised to inmates who signed up for or received a vasectomy are still being applied to their sentences.

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Suhrheinrich asked how the sentencing credits differ from plea deals in which criminal defendants surrender one or more fundamental rights to obtain a more lenient sentence.

Horwitz said the sterilization program had “no plausible connection” to a legitimate governmental interest, and reminded the panel that Judge Benningfield conceded the program was “unduly coercive.”

Attorney Michael Schmitt argued on behalf of Benningfield, and claimed that two of the three plaintiffs in the case lacked standing because they were not sentenced under his client’s jurisdiction.

The order signed by Benningfield, according to Schmitt, applied only to those defendants who were sentenced in the general sessions court, and two of the plaintiffs were sentenced in circuit court.

Judge Moore asked Schmitt about the inmates being asked to relinquish their fundamental right to procreation in exchange for the credit.

“In this case,” the attorney answered, “these gentlemen all exercised their fundamental right. There was no burden, no barrier.”

Schmitt repeatedly told the panel that the plaintiffs have suffered no concrete injury and are not at risk of suffering an injury in the future.

“[There was] no disparate treatment,” he concluded. “The same offer was handed down to everyone.”

Horwitz disputed his counterpart’s argument about his clients’ injuries-in-fact, and told the panel that 30-day credits would be beneficial regarding efforts to have their criminal records expunged.

The ability to expunge their records a month earlier is a “concrete and tangible benefit,” Horwitz told the panel.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. also sat on the panel.

No timetable has been set for the court’s decision.

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