May 17, 2010

Supreme Court Decides United States v. Comstock

On May 17, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Comstock, No. 08-1224, holding that Congress had the authority, under the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution, to enact a statute authorizing federal courts to order the civil commitment of mentally ill, sexually dangerous federal prisoners beyond the end of their criminal sentences.

The federal government sought orders under 42 U.S.C. § 4248 for the civil commitment of several federal prisoners whose criminal sentences were ending, asserting that they were mentally ill and sexually dangerous. The prisoners challenged section 4248's constitutionality on a number of grounds, including the contention that its enactment exceeded Congress's constitutional authority. The district court agreed, dismissing the proceedings for the prisoners' civil commitment, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the statute was within Congress's authority to enact laws that are "necessary and proper" to carry out its constitutionally enumerated powers. This broad authority has long been recognized as permitting Congress to enact laws that are "convenient or useful" or "conducive" to the enumerated powers' "beneficial exercise." The standard is whether the means chosen by Congress are "rationally related" to achieving a constitutionally permissible end. "If it can be seen that the means adopted are really calculated to attain the end, the degree of their necessity, the extent to which they condue to the end, the closeness of the relationship between the means adopted and the end to be attained, are matters for congressional determination alone." Burroughs v. United States, 290 U.S. 534, 547-48 (1934).

Thus, Congress has broad authority to create crimes and impose criminal penalties, although the power to do so is not specifically conferred by the Constitution. It likewise has the power to establish prisons and to enact rules for the care of prisoners. As part of the latter responsibility, Congress has long provided for mental health care for federal prisoners, including their civil commitment. Since 1949, 18 U.S.C. § 4246 has provided for the postsentence civil detention of prisoners who are mentally ill and therefore dangerous to themselves or others, and that statute was upheld by Greenwood v. United States, 350 U.S. 366 (1956). The statute at issue here represents only a modest extension of that authority, which Congress could reasonably have concluded was necessary to protect against the special risk of public danger that would be presented by the release of federal inmates whose mental illness causes them to "have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct." The Court stressed that the statute at issue is narrow in scope, applying only to a small fraction of persons who are already in federal custody because of their violation of other federal laws, and it rejected the claim that the statute amounted to Congress's assertion of a "general police power." The Court declined to decide whether the statute denies equal protection, due process, or any other constitutional right, holding only that it was within the power of Congress to enact.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor joined. Justices Kennedy and Alito filed opinions concurring in the judgment. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Scalia joined in part.

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