For UNC Center for Civil Rights lawyers and their clients in a eugenics-restitution lawsuit, a March victory in the N.C. Supreme Court turned into a defeat Tuesday in the lower-level state Court of Appeals.
Addressing the point on orders from the high court, a three-judge appeals panel ruled there’s nothing unfair in the state promising compensation for people it forcibly sterilized only to victims and/or family members when the victims were still alive as of June 30, 2013.
The distinction is constitutional under the federal and state definitions of equal protection, Judge Linda McGee said in an opinion joined by fellow Judges Chris Dillon and Mark Davis.
“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, who were forced to undergo involuntary sterilization,” McGee said.
In a footnote to the ruling, McGee pointed out that the federal courts have likewise refused to say Congress violated the equal-protection standard in 1988 when it offered compensation only to then-living victims of the World War II-era internment of Japanese-Americans.
North Carolina’s eugenics-compensation program “is similar” in concept to the federal one for Japanese-Americans, she said.
‘Not really surprising’
Tuesday’s Court of Appeals ruling was the latest twist in a case that’s playing out as UNC system officials debate whether they’ll continue to allow Center for Civil Rights lawyers like Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin to represent clients at all.
The ruling’s substance was “certainly disappointing although not really surprising,” as the judges opted to decide the issue without asking for a fresh round of briefs or in-court argument, Dorosin said.
Dorosin and Haddix are representing the heirs of a trio of forced-sterilization victims who died in 1996, 2006 and 2010. They argue the mid-2013 cutoff was unconstitutional for having “arbitrarily denied compensation to the heirs of some victims while allowing compensation to others,” McGee said.
The lawsuit’s been brewing since 2015, and Tuesday marked the second time the Court of Appeals panel had ruled against the center’s clients.
The first time through, the same panel split 2-1 on whether it had jurisdiction over the matter at all. McGee and Davis said it didn’t, while Dillon thought it did. The majority view would have dismissed the case entirely.
In March, a unanimous state Supreme Court handed the heirs a temporary victory, instructing the appeal judges to deal with the substance of the dispute instead of ducking it via a procedural ruling.
Dorosin’s “not really surprising” take on Tuesday’s outcome alluded to the fact the appeal panel complied with the high court’s order without allowing either side – the state attorney general’s office is opposing the heirs – to elaborate on the points they made in court in late 2015.
That hearing “quickly got sidetracked by the jurisdictional argument the state made,” Dorosin said. “So we never really had an opportunity to get the court to focus on the constitutional argument, which we think was most important.”
But McGee’s opinion, with Dillon on board this time around, indicated the judges didn’t think the issues were all that complex.
“The purpose of the compensation program was to monetarily compensate living victims only, not the heirs of deceased victims,” she said, noting that legislators only made an exception for the heirs of victims who died after the cutoff date, so a victim would at least “have the comfort of knowing that his or her compensation would be awarded.”
The center’s clients have the right to ask the Supreme Court to review Tuesday’s ruling.
“We haven’t consulted with our clients yet,” Dorosin said. “We’re in the process of doing that. That’ll ultimately be their decision to make.”
The panel that decided the matter for the Court of Appeals is bipartisan. McGee and Davis are Democrats; Dillon is a Republican.