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Supreme Court justices appear split on US sex offender law

The 2006 law permits the US government to hold convicted sex offenders even after they've served their sentences. Hearing arguments Tuesday, the Supreme Court justices sparred over whether Congress has exceeded its authority.

By Staff writer / January 12, 2010



Washington

The US Supreme Court appears sharply split over whether Congress exceeded its authority in passing a 2006 law authorizing the federal government to indefinitely detain inmates whom officials suspect may commit future violent sex crimes.

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In a spirited hour-long argument session Tuesday, US Solicitor General Elena Kagan urged the high court to uphold the constitutionality of Section 4248 of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. The law establishes a civil commitment procedure to keep federal detainees in government custody – even after they have completed their full prison terms.

Ms. Kagan told the justices the law was necessary to prevent certain “sexually dangerous” individuals from slipping between the cracks after being released from federal prison. In instances when state authorities are unwilling or unable to prevent their release, the federal government was forced do so itself, she said.

Of 15,000 sex offenders in federal custody, Kagan said roughly 100 have been certified as “sexually dangerous.” Five of them filed a lawsuit charging that the federal statute exceeds Congress’s limited powers under the Constitution and intrudes into general police powers reserved to state governments.

G. Alan Dubois, an assistant federal public defender in Raleigh, N.C., told the justices that the national government’s authority over an individual in federal custody ends with the completion of his sentence. The Constitution does not empower the federal government to seek the civil commitment of individuals deemed sexually dangerous, he said. Instead, federal authorities may urge the states to take further action if certain “dangerous” individuals pose a threat to public safety.

The case represents an important test of how the court under Chief Justice John Roberts views the balance of power between the states and the national government

It is also an opportunity for the court to clarify its vision of the scope of the Constitution’s necessary and proper clause. The clause gives Congress the power "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution ... powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States."

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