RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Some surviving relatives of people involuntarily sterilized by the state of North Carolina decades ago can't get financial compensation from the state, an appeals court affirmed Tuesday.
The state court said the victims in those cases died before a legal cutoff date that determines who's qualified to receive the money.
A Court of Appeals panel unanimously upheld decisions by a state commission to deny compensation to three estates. The North Carolina Industrial Commission oversees payments from $10 million set aside by the General Assembly in 2013.
About 7,600 people deemed "feeble-minded" or otherwise undesirable were sterilized between 1929 and 1974. The law said victims still alive on June 30, 2013 could qualify to receive the money. Payments of $35,000 each have been made so far to about 200 people. The estates of those who were alive on that date but have since died could still receive payments.
The commission, a quasi-judicial panel whose job was to evaluate claims, agreed three people who died before that date — in 1996, 2006 and 2010 — had been involuntarily sterilized, but denied compensation to their estates, citing the cutoff date.
Attorneys for the estates argued they should receive compensation too, because the law violates equal protection and due process rights for the deceased.
Writing for a three-judge panel, Chief Judge Linda McGee wrote there was a rational basis for the cutoff and credible differences between the victims and victims' heirs.
"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.
Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney at the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights and representing the estates, said in an email it was "a disappointing, albeit unsurprising decision."
Tuesday's rulings came three months after the state Supreme Court told the Court of Appeals to rule on whether the law unconstitutionally denies compensation to victims who died before the cutoff. It was unclear whether the survivors would ask the state Supreme Court to review Tuesday's order.
North Carolina's sterilization program was one of the most aggressive among more than 30 states where people were forced to give up their right to have children in the 20th century. Some of those sterilized under authority of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina were children deemed promiscuous or troublemakers. Others were adults, deemed incompetent. Overwhelmingly, they were poor.
In 2002, Gov. Mike Easley apologized for the sterilizations, but it took another decade for lawmakers to set up the compensation program.