WASHINGTON (May 17) – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal officials can indefinitely hold inmates considered “sexually dangerous” after their prison terms are complete. In case U.S. v. Comstock, 08-1224, the issue is may congress authorize the civil commitment of a “sexually dangerous” person even after that person has completed his or her prison sentence?
The high court in a 7-2 judgment reversed a lower court decision that said Congress overstepped its authority in allowing indefinite detentions of considered “sexually dangerous.”
“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,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the majority opinion.
Five federal prisoners had brought the case. Lead challenger Graydon Comstock was six days before he was to finish a sentence in November 2006 for possession of child pornography when he was certified by the attorney general as “sexually dangerous.” Since then Comstock has been confined at a federal prison in North Carolina
President George W. Bush in 2006 signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which authorized the civil commitment of sexually dangerous federal inmates.
The act, named after the son of “America’s Most Wanted” television host John Walsh, was challenged by four men who served prison terms ranging from three to eight years for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor. Their confinement was supposed to end more than two years ago, but prison officials said there would be a risk of sexually violent conduct or child molestation if they were released.
A fifth man who also was part of the legal challenge was charged with child sex abuse, but declared incompetent to stand trial.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled last year that Congress overstepped its authority when it enacted a law allowing the government to hold indefinitely people who are considered “sexually dangerous.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said Congress’ ability to control the release of dangerous prisoners stems from its broad power under the Constitution to enact laws governing prisons. He added that Congress has long been involved in mental health care for federal prisoners, including their civil commitment.
Most broadly, the court said the power to confine inmates whose sentences have ended arises from Congress’ authority in the Constitution to make laws “necessary and proper” to carry out its powers.
Breyer noted that the law has been applied to only a small fraction of prisoners. He referred to a statement by Solicitor General Elena Kagan at January oral arguments that 105 individuals have been subject to the law, out of more than 188,000 federal inmates.
Kagan had argued that the federal government was trying to fill a gap left by the states. “The federal government has mentally ill, seriously dangerous persons in its custody,” Kagan had argued. “It knows that those persons, if released, will commit serious sexual offenses, and it knows too that states are not often in a position to deal with those dangers.”
Kagan was appealing a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, that said Congress had overstepped its power in the 2006 law authorizing civil commitment of certain prisoners.
But “we conclude that the Constitution grants Congress legislative power sufficient to enact” this law, Breyer said.
Dissenting Monday were Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying Congress can only pass laws that deal with the federal powers listed in the Constitution.
Nothing in the Constitution “expressly delegates to Congress the power to enact a civil commitment regime for sexually dangerous persons, nor does any other provision in the Constitution vest Congress or the other branches of the federal government with such a power,” Thomas said.
Thomas was joined in part on his dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia.
Chief Justice John Roberts last year granted an administration request to block the release of up to 77 inmates at a federal prison in North Carolina. These were people whose prison terms for sex offenses were ending. The justice’s order was designed to allow time for the high court to consider the administration’s appeal.
The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act also establishes a national sex offender registry, increases punishments for some federal crimes against children and strengthens child pornography protections. Those provisions are not being challenged.
State laws allowing civil commitments of sex offenders also are unaffected.