Virginia lawmakers press to compensate state's eugenics victims

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is at odds with fellow Republicans over whether victims of the state's involuntary sterilization program 50 years ago can sue the state for compensation.

The state's top lawyer released a legal opinion recently that said the state can't be sued in its own courts and therefore "it is unlikely that a claimant could successfully bring an action against the commonwealth for having been sterilized."

That runs afoul of Republican lawmakers, who were pushing legislation earlier this year that would give $50,000 to each of the victims of a state eugenics program -- at a total cost of $15.5 million. But lawmakers killed the bill, saying eugenics victims can sue the state so there's no need to offer them payments. Cuccinelli's opinion that they can't sue revived prospects for the bill.

"I don't want to disagree with the attorney general," said Del. John O'Bannon, R-Richmond. "There's something inconsistent here."

A Supreme Court ruling a half-century ago allowed states to sterilize mentally ill men and women to prevent them from reproducing. In what is now considered a dark period in Virginia history, the state sterilized about 7,300 people against their will between 1924 and 1979.

Dels. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, and Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, proposed compensating the victims of eugenics during the General Assembly session earlier this year. But the plan died in a House subcommittee.

"I'd like to look at that a little more before I say I disagree with the attorney general's opinion," O'Bannon said. "[Sterilization] is a terrible thing to have happened. Obviously we'd like to do the right thing. These things are always tough to deal with. Maybe we can come up with a resolution."

Hope and Marshall said they will lobby Gov. Bob McDonnell to use money from future budget surpluses to compensate the victims.

"The governor has not responded to our request to meet with the victims, and if he had the opportunity to talk to them, he would have a different view," Hope said. "It's one thing to go through your life and decide not to have children, and it's quite another to not be able to because the government decided for you."

McDonnell's office said he hasn't ruled on the proposal.

"The governor believes that forced sterilization was a horrific and unconscionable policy," McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said. "We will review this opinion in the weeks ahead."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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