Eighth Circuit Historical Society

The Historical Society of the United States Courts in the Eighth Circuit

District of Nebraska Branch

2003 Annual Report of the District of Nebraska Branch
of the Historical Society of the
United States Courts in the Eighth Circuit

In 2002, the Nebraska branch of the Eighth Circuit Historical Society established the Van Pelt History Prize for the best paper on a matter of legal significance submitted by an undergraduate or law student at any of Nebraska's colleges, universities or law schools. The prize is only awarded at the discretion of the Branch, and in 2002 such discretion was not exercised.

In 2003 however, at its annual meeting, the officers of the branch expanded the reach of the prize to include high school students participating in the state finals of "Nebraska History Day," which is the state competition in the National History Day contest. Winners of the four state district history day tournaments converge on the Nebraska Wesleyan University campus in Lincoln for the state competition in mid-April every year. The competition includes submissions in various categories, including papers, presentations and video documentaries. The top two finishers in each category at the state competition proceed to the national competition which will be held this year at the University of Maryland in June.

This time there was a winner. In the category of video documentary Megan Berg of Lincoln was awarded first prize and the Van Pelt Prize for the Best Presentation with a Legal Theme. The award was presented by James W. Hewitt, J.D., Ph.D., member of the Nebraska branch and a Wesleyan faculty member in the History Department. Ms. Berg's video documentary was entitled "Sterilization in America," and concerned the forced sterilization of patients at the Beatrice (Nebraska) State Mental Institution. Ms. Berg interviewed the lawyers involved in the case of State v. Cavitt, 182 Neb. 712, rehearing den. 183 Neb. 243 (1968) (statute requiring sterilization of "mentally deficient persons" as condition precedent to parole or discharge from "State Mental Institution for Mentally Defective Persons" was a valid exercise of police power and did not violate equal protection), including Vince Dowding of Grand Island who was successful in persuading the United States Supreme Court to take certiorari. Following the Supreme Court's decision in the case, the Nebraska legislature acted to end involuntary sterilization. In making the award Hewitt expressed congratulations on behalf of the Nebraska branch, and reported "after two trips to the awards podium Ms. Berg seemed to grasp the significance of her contribution to legal and historical scholarship. It was a cinematic marvel as well. I expect her to do well at the national competition." The Nebraska branch will of course follow the outcome closely.

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January 9, 2004
©2001 by the Historical Society of the U.S. Courts in the Eighth Circuit