Supreme Court upholds indefinite detention of mentally ill sex offenders

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] 7-2 in United States v. Comstock [Cornell LII backgrounder] that mentally ill sex offenders may be civilly committed beyond their prison sentences. The court upheld the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act [18 USC s. 4248 text], which allows a district court to order the civil commitment of a mentally ill, sexually dangerous federal prisoner beyond the date he would otherwise be released. The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit had granted the defendant's motion to dismiss proceedings, holding that section 4248 exceeded Congress's powers under the Commerce Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder], that the "clear and convincing" requirement did not meet due process standards, and that the statute violated the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments of the US Constitution. The court reversed and remanded the Fourth Circuit's decision, stating that the Necessary and Proper Clause [text] grants Congress sufficient authority to pass such laws. In delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Stephen Breyer stated that several considerations were used to compel the court's decision.

We take these five considerations together. They include: (1) the breadth of the Necessary and Proper Clause, (2) the long history of federal involvement in this arena, (3) the sound reasons for the statute's enactment in light of the Government's custodial interest in safeguarding the public from dangers posed by those in federal custody, (4) the statute's accommodation of state interests, and (5) the statute's narrow scope. Taken together, these considerations lead us to conclude that the statute is a "necessary and proper" means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned, and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned but who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others. The Constitution consequently authorizes Congress to enact the statute.
Justice Anthony Kennedy concurred in the judgment only, joined by Justice Samuel Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia.

US Solicitor General and recent Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan [official profile; JURIST news archive] defended the law [JURIST report] in January stating that it was necessary to protect individuals from people who have the kind of mental illness that is going to cause grave danger to the community. She stated that the federal government is in the best position to prevent this kind of danger, and therefore has a duty to act as a federal custodian. While some of the justices were skeptical of Kagan's position, the majority of the court agreed with her assertion in its opinion. The court did not reach or decide any claim that the statute or its application denies equal protection, procedural or substantive due process, or any other constitutional rights.

 

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