In a unanimous decision today, the Court of Appeals ruled that heirs of eugenics victims are not eligible for relief under the state’s Eugenics Asexualization and Sterilization Compensation Program.
The heirs in three separate cases had all been denied compensation by the Industrial Commission based on a provision of the eugenics compensation law that requires victims to have been “alive on June 30, 2013.”
They argued previously on appeal that the legislature’s distinction between victims who were living or who had died for purposes of restitution violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
Between 1926 and 1974, North Carolina sterilized some 7,600 state residents against their will. The Compensation Program was established in 2013 with a $10 mill cap.
Nearly 790 victims or their families filed claims for payment from that fund by a June 30, 2014 deadline. The Industrial Commission then reviewed the claims and found that 220 qualified for compensation. An initial payment of $20,000 was sent to them in October 2014, and a second in the amount of $15,000 went out at the beginning of November. The remaining funds were held pending appeals.
The Court of Appeals previously ordered that the heirs in the three cases present their claims to a three-judge panel before seeking appellate review, but the state Supreme Court sent the case back down.
Chief Judge Linda McGee wrote in the opinions issued today that the estates of the victims are not similarly situated to the actual victims themselves, who were forced to undergo involuntary sterilization.
“In an effort to circumvent this distinction, the Estates argue that it is the estates of all victims who are similarly situated and, therefore, disparate treatment between the estates of victims must pass rational basis review. However, the intended beneficiaries of the Compensation Program are the living victims of the eugenics program. The Estates’ focus on the estates of deceased victims is inappropriate in the Equal Protection analysis before us, and we hold that the Estates are not similarly situated to the intended beneficiaries of the Compensation Program. The Estates’ Equal Protection challenge fails for this reason.”
Judges Chris Dillon and Mark Davis concurred.
McGee wrote that the panel did not think it required probing constitutional analysis to determine that deceased victims and living victims are not similarly situated.
“The former had no expectation of compensation, even following the enactment of the Compensation Program, as they were specifically therein excluded. The latter were able to join their victim benefactors-to-be in anticipation that these living victims were finally going to receive compensation.8 More importantly, because the intent of the Compensation Program was to compensate the living victims themselves, both monetarily and emotionally, these living victims all received the reassurance and compensation of knowing that if their claims were ultimately successful, the compensation would be granted, even if the actual victims failed to survive the full claims process. We hold that the Estates were not similarly situated with any intended victim beneficiaries of the Compensation Program.”
Because the panel found that the claims raised in the three cases did not violate the Equal Protection Clause, they were remanded back to the Industrial Commission with instruction to deny the claims of the Estates.
UNC Center for Civil Rights attorneys who represent the clients Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin said the decision was disappointing but not surprising.
Dorosin said they “were unable to get the court to focus on the constitutional issues that we think were most critical” after a jurisdictional argument the state made. You can read more on that here.