Supreme Court looks at constitutionality of sex offender law
The Supreme Court Tuesday considers a law that allows the federal government to detain offenders it considers "sexually dangerous," even after completion of their sentences. Critics say the sex offender law intrudes on states' authority.
The US Supreme Court on Tuesday is set to review the constitutionality of a law that allows the government to continue to detain any person in federal custody the authorities suspect might engage in a future act of sexual violence.Skip to next paragraph
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The law applies to any federal detainee, including inmates who are about to complete their entire prison terms and regardless of whether the suspected future act is a federal crime.
At issue is a provision of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. Section 4248 of the law provides for the civil commitment of any individual deemed by the federal government to be “sexually dangerous.”
Lawyers are challenging the law as a violation of due process. In addition, they argue that Congress exceeded the limits of its federal authority by attempting to prevent sex crimes.
It is the second issue of federalism that the Supreme Court has agreed to examine.
The civil commitment of individuals deemed dangerous to society is an area largely controlled by state governments, which are authorized in the Constitution to enforce broad police powers to protect state and local residents. In contrast, the federal government’s powers are limited to specific areas of national concern such as interstate commerce.
The key question before the high court is whether congressional authority to enact legislation is broad enough to encompass prevention of future sex crimes.
Violation of federalism?
A federal judge in North Carolina and the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond have ruled that Section 4248 violates principles of federalism and the structure of government as laid down in the Constitution.
“The power claimed by Section 4248 – forcible, indefinite civil commitment – is among the most severe wielded by any government,” the Fourth Circuit declared in a January 2009 decision. “The Framers, distrustful of such authority, reposed such broad powers in the states, limiting the national government to specific and enumerated powers.”
The Obama administration is asking the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court decision and uphold the constitutionality of the law. In her brief to the court, Solicitor General Elena Kagan says Congress may pass laws related to the federal criminal justice and penal system. She says Section 4248 is a “necessary and proper” use of federal power to protect the public.
“Necessary and proper to the enforcement of federal criminal law and to the operation of a federal penal system are certain incidental powers, including resort to civil commitment of ill and dangerous persons who could pose a threat to the public if released,” Ms. Kagan writes in her brief.