The surviving families of people who were involuntarily sterilized by the state of North Carolina decades ago were unsuccessful in the latest phase of a court battle that would have made them eligible for a state compensation program.
In a unanimous decision issued Tuesday, a three-judge state Court of Appeals panel upheld decisions by a state commission to deny compensation to three estates.
The North Carolina Industrial Commission oversees payments from $10 million that the General Assembly set aside in 2013 to compensate the people who had been sterilized between 1929 and 1974 under orders from North Carolina’s Eugenics Board.
Nearly 85 percent of the 7,600 who were sterilized were women or girls, some as young as 10.
The board’s declared goal was to purify the state’s population by weeding out the mentally ill, diseased, feeble-minded and others deemed undesirable.
At issue in the three cases decided by the panel Tuesday was whether the estates of victims of the state-sponsored sterilizations should have had access to the $50,000 compensation that living victims did.
Nearly 790 victims or their families filed claims for payment from that fund by the deadline of June, 30, 2014, as spelled out in law.
The Industrial Commission decided that 220 people 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 by the families hoping for a different outcome from the state appeals court.
The families had been denied compensation by the Industrial Commission based on the part of the eugenics compensation law that stated victims had to have been “alive on June 30, 2013.”
Attorneys for the families of victims who had qualified, but died before that date, argued they should have received compensation. They argued the law set an arbitrary deadline that violated equal protection and due process for the victims who died.
In the opinion released Tuesday, Chief Judge Linda McGee wrote there was a rational basis for the cutoff and distinctions between the victims and the estates seeking compensation.
“The General Assembly provided compensation solely to living victims in order to allow greater compensation to those individuals who personally suffered the pain and indignity of involuntary sterilization,” McGee wrote.
There were “several rational reasons” for the cutoff, McGee wrote, including the difficulties and costs of determining the legitimate heirs of victims, some of whom have been dead for more than 80 years.
“Without discounting in any manner the injuries suffered by the families of the victims due to the eugenics program, the estates of the victims are not similarly situated to the actual victims themselves,” she added. Judges Mark Davis and Chris Dillon joined in McGee’s opinion.
The rulings came almost three months after the state Supreme Court sent the case down to the state Court of Appeals to respond to the equal protection and due process questions.
It was unclear whether the families would appeal to the state Supreme Court.