When Judge Sam Benningfield of White County, Tenn., offered to shave off jail time for inmates who volunteered for sterilization, a chorus of attorneys, advocates and public officials reacted with horror.
Benningfield said his goal was to break a “vicious cycle” of repeat drug offenders with children. But many argued that the proposal, outlined in a May order, was nothing short of eugenics. Not to mention it seemed unconstitutional on its face. Civil rights lawyers brought legal actions and a local prosecutor told his staff to avoid the judge’s program at all costs.
Now, after the wave of backlash and amid multiple lawsuits, state judicial regulators have formally reprimanded Benningfield for promising 30-day sentence reductions to inmates who agreed to receive vasectomies or birth control implants.
In a letter filed Monday, the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct found that Benningfield violated rules regarding judicial independence, integrity and propriety.
“You have acknowledged that even though you were trying to accomplish a worthy goal in preventing the birth of substance addicted babies,” the board wrote, “you now realize that this order could unduly coerce inmates into undergoing a surgical procedure which would cause at least a temporary sterilization, and it was therefore improper.”
Benningfield issued the order on May 15, but it didn’t receive media attention until a local news station reported on it in mid-July. By that time, dozens of men and women had signed up to receive one of the two procedures.
Following a week of outcry, the judge issued a second order paring back the program. Anyone who signed up for the procedures and took “serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation” would still get the credit, he wrote, but the plan was otherwise canceled.
Civil rights attorneys contended that, even after the second order came down, the sterilization program was still in place because inmates who had previously signed up were still eligible for 30-day sentence reductions.
The judicial board’s letter says the program is no longer available to any inmate and that Benningfield ran afoul of rules requiring judges to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence.” It noted that Benningfield didn’t object to the reprimand. The letter also reprimanded Benningfield for threatening to end an unrelated house arrest program if a defense attorney refused to withdraw a valid objection regarding a client’s probation.
Benningfield didn’t immediately respond to a message from The Washington Post seeking comment Monday night.
Previously, the judge characterized his highly unorthodox sterilization program as an attempt to help repeat offenders who couldn’t find jobs or afford child support after passing through his courtroom.
“I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children,” he told NewsChannel 5. “This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”
Several inmates who were jailed when the orders were in effect sued the judge and White County Sheriff Oddie Shoupe, claiming their constitutional rights were violated. The judge and the sheriff have denied liability.
Daniel Horwitz, who represents a group of male inmates, said the judicial board should have gone further than reprimanding Benningfield and instead should have recommended he be removed from the bench.
“A public reprimand is serious, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing short of removal is acceptable,” Horwitz told The Post.
The judge “flagrantly violated his oath to uphold the Constitution by instituting an outrageous, morally indefensible, and spectacularly illegal inmate sterilization program,” he said. “Given the gravity of that misconduct, the fact that the Board didn’t recommend his removal is difficult to fathom.”
Horwitz filed court papers in September on behalf of three male inmates, who called Benningfield’s program “both illegal and profoundly coercive.”
Two of the plaintiffs declined the offer for vasectomies in exchange for a sentence reduction. Another plaintiff agreed to the procedure in hopes of being released in time to watch the birth of his first grandchild. He enrolled in the judge’s early release program but didn’t receive the reduction.
Dozens of their fellow inmates, male and female, agreed to undergo birth control procedures, which can be irreversible in some cases. Horwitz’s lawsuit describes one female White County inmate who received a hormonal birth control implant and later tried to cut it out of her arm with a razor blade. She is not listed as a plaintiff.
Horwitz asked the court last week to declare the judge’s program discriminatory and unconstitutional, saying it “shocks the judicial conscience, abuses government power,” and violates the due process and equal protection rights of inmates.
The offers “punish inmates with more severe jail sentences if they exercise their right to procreate,” Horwitz’s motion reads, adding later, “Eugenics is categorically unconstitutional.”
Benningfield has asked the court to dismiss the case, saying, among other things, that the inmates weren’t injured by his orders.
Horwitz said he believes the judicial board’s letter will help vindicate his clients’ claims.
In addition to the declaration, Horwitz, who is working pro bono, has asked for attorney fees and court costs to be donated to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Tuskegee History Center. The center memorializes the several hundred victims of the Tuskegee experiments, in which the U.S. Public Health Service secretly studied the progression of syphilis in a group of black, mostly poor volunteers without treating them or telling them they were infected.
Heroin-related arrests have spiked in Tennessee as the state has grappled with growing opioid addiction and an influx of illegal drugs, as the Tennessean reported this year. Crimes involving pills and heroin have risen, particularly in rural communities such as White County, according to state health officials.
District Attorney Bryant Dunaway, whose district includes White County and Benningfield’s court, was among those who criticized the sterilization program. Dunaway, who vowed during his election campaign to crack down on repeat offenders, told NewsChannel 5 in July that he had instructed his staff not to take part in Benningfield’s order “in any way.”
“Those decisions are personal in nature,” he said, “and I think that’s just something that the court system should not encourage nor mandate.”
More from Morning Mix: