U.S. Sixth Circuit - The FindLaw 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Judge Reprimanded for Shortening Sentences for Birth Control

Judge Sam Benningfield, of White County, Tennessee, made national headlines this spring, again over the summer, and is doing it one more time this fall. For the most part, it's all related to the same idea he had that was so wild it violated the Constitution.

Benningfield, back in May, issued an order that gave inmates 30 days credit in exchange for undergoing a birth control procedure. For male inmates, it involved a vasectomy, for female inmates, it involved a placement of the Nexplannon device, a birth control device that is implanted in the arm and lasts for three years. Not surprisingly, after his order was announced, an outcry and investigation ensued. As a result of that investigation, Benningfield received a public reprimand from the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct.

Birth Control With an Optional Side of Coercion

The Board of Judicial Conduct explained in their public reprimand that Benningfield has acknowledged that he was wrong and his conduct was improper. But, oddly, the language seems to be a bit light on the reprimand:

You have acknowledged that even though you were trying to accomplish a worthy goal in preventing the birth of substance addicted babies by the entry of your order ... you now realize that this order unduly coerced inmates into undergoing a surgical procedure which would cause at least a temporary sterilization, and it was therefore improper.

After Benningfield received the notice of the investigation, he issued an order rescinding his prior order. In that order, however, it did extend the benefit of the bargain to the inmates that had already agreed to the procedure without actually requiring the procedure be done. Notably, none of the men had the opportunity to receive the vasectomies; however, several women did get the Nexplannon implant. Fortunately for those women, the implants are not as difficult to reverse as a vasectomy, and are no longer effective after 3 years.

Not So Fast There Judge

In addition to getting dinged for this birth control coercion, Benningfield also was reprimanded for coercing an attorney and criminal defendant into withdrawing a valid objection that he should have sustained. He did so by threatening to revoke home arrest for everyone if the objection was not withdrawn. The Board of Judicial Conduct issued a similarly light reprimand over this conduct as well.

Sadly, for those seeking justice, the reprimand really has no practical effect on his ability to continue working as a judge. However, there is a civil rights lawsuit seeking actual justice.

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