Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Civil Commitment Statute OK Under N and P Clause

The Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Comstock, No. 08--1224 (May 17, 2010), yesterday.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor joined. Justices Kennedy and Alito concurred. Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented.

A federal civil-commitment statute authorizes DOJ to detain mentally ill, "sexually dangerous" federal prisoners beyond the prisoners' release dates: 18 U. S. C. § 4248.

Issue: whether the federal government is authorized under Article I of the Constitution to enact such a federal civil-commitment regime or whether its doing so falls beyond the scope of a government of enumerated powers.

Conclusion: the statute is constitutional.


Five considerations:

1) the breadth of the Necessary and Proper Clause,

2) the long history of federal involvement in this arena,

3) the reasons behind the statute’s enactment in light of the government’s custodial interest in safeguarding the public from dangers posed by individuals 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."

Majority noted that it does did not decide any claims regarding the statute and equal protection of the laws, procedural or substantive due process, or any other rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Respondents remain free to pursue such claims on remand.

Justice Kennedy concurred in the judgment and wrote separately for two purposes: 1) to withhold assent from certain statements and propositions of the Court’s opinion; 2) to caution that the Constitution does require the invalidation of congressional attempts to extend federal powers in some instances.

Justice Alito likewise concurred in the judgment. He was concerned about the breadth of the Court’s language in the opinion and the ambiguity of the standard that the Court applied. He was, however, persuaded, on narrow grounds, that the statute is "necessary and proper" for Congress to enact.

Justice Thomas, with whom Justice Scalia joined (except for one part of the opinion), dissented.

He concluded that the Necessary and Proper Clause empowers Congress to enact only those laws that carry into execution at least one of the federal powers enumerated in the Constitution. He found that § 4248 executes no enumerated power. He pointed out that the Necessary and Proper Clause does not provide Congress with authority to enact any law simply because it furthers other laws Congress has enacted. The Clause requires a showing that every federal statute carries into execution at least one of the federal government’s enumerated powers.

He also noted that the statute’s definition of "sexually dangerous person" has no element relating to the subject’s offense. It does not require federal courts to find any connection between the reasons supporting civil commitment and the enumerated power with which that person’s criminal conduct interfered. So § 4248 allows a court to civilly commit a person without finding that he/she was ever charged with or convicted of a federal crime involving sexual violence. The possibility is not hypothetical. The government conceded at oral argument that almost 20% of the individuals against whom § 4248 proceedings have been brought fit this description.

The dissent also pointed out that the statute the Court upheld in Greenwood v. United States, 350 U. S. 366 (1956), is in contrast. That statute authorized the federal government to exercise civil custody over federal defendants declared mentally unfit to stand trial only until the accused was found mentally competent to stand trial or until the pending charges against them were disposed of according to law. That statute’s end reasonably could be interpreted as preserving the government’s power to enforce a criminal law against a defendant. Section 4248, in contrast, authorizes federal detention of a person even after the government loses the authority to prosecute him/her federally.

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