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Alabama Supreme Court Says Judges Lack Authority in Sterilization Case

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In a 5-2 vote, the Alabama Supreme Court has overturned a circuit-court ruling that would have allowed the parents of a 14-year-old mentally retarded girl to have her sterilized.

But the court also refused to bar the sterilization, saying in essence that it was none of the court's business.

"They just basically sidestepped it," said F. Timothy Riley, the lawyer for the girl's parents. "This leaves everything hanging."

In a two-sentence opinion overruling the lower court, the high court majority cited a previous case in which the court ruled it had no jurisdiction to order the sterilization of retarded children.

Unlike other states, which have set guidelines for when a retarded child can be sterilized, Alabama law is silent on the issue, according to Gina Matthews, a lawyer for the child.

The Marshall County Circuit Court had ruled that the child's parents were free to have her sterilized. It refused to order the sterilization but denied an injunction sought by court-appointed lawyers for the child.

The girl's lawyers appealed, arguing that the courts should follow specific guidelines before allowing children to be sterilized. The parents had initially asked the court to order the sterilization, arguing that the girl might harm herself if she became pregnant.--jrs

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