- Associated Press - Friday, March 17, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The North Carolina Supreme Court says a lower appeals court should determine whether the legislature’s effort to compensate people involuntarily sterilized by the state decades ago unconstitutionally denies compensation to victims already dead when the law took effect.

About 7,600 people in the state deemed “feeble-minded” or otherwise undesirable were sterilized between 1929 and 1974. Payments of $35,000 each have been made to about 200 people or their estates from a $10 million pool set up by the General Assembly.

Friday’s ruling involved three people who died before a cutoff date in the 2013 compensation law, which said victims still alive on June 30, 2013 could qualify to receive the money. The North Carolina Industrial Commission, a quasi-judicial panel whose job was to evaluate claims, agreed that these three people had been involuntarily sterilized, but denied compensation to their estates.

Attorneys for the victims’ estates challenged the denial, saying the law violates equal protection and due process rights for the deceased. The commission said it was a matter for the Court of Appeals. A divided panel on the Court of Appeals wouldn’t take up the matter last year, citing a 2014 law that directs constitutional challenges of state laws to be heard in Wake County by three-judge panels of Superior Court judges.

Both attorneys for the state and the three estates then argued that Court of Appeals had jurisdiction, and the state Supreme Court unanimously agreed Friday, saying an appellate court venue is appropriate since the constitutional challenge came up before an administrative panel to start with.

The ruling emphasizes the slow legal march toward closing the book on North Carolina’s sterilization program, 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. California’s program focused on Asians and Mexicans. African-Americans were targeted across the South, and Native Americans elsewhere.

Some sterilized under authority of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina were children when sterilized, because they were considered promiscuous or troublemakers. Others were adults, determined to be incompetent. Overwhelmingly, they were poor.

In 2002, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley apologized for the sterilizations, but it took another decade for lawmakers to set up the compensation program. Last year, President Barack Obama signed a law preventing any such compensation from being used to deny need-based assistance to the victims. The bipartisan legislation was introduced by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who championed the North Carolina compensation program when he was state House speaker.

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