Supreme Court upholds federal sex offender law
The US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that Congress did not overstep its authority by passing a law that allows 'sexually dangerous' offenders to be detained past their prison terms.
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“If a federal prisoner is infected with a communicable disease that threatens others, surely it would be ‘necessary and proper’ for the federal government to take action [and] refuse to release that individual among the general public where he might infect others,” Breyer wrote.Skip to next paragraph
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“And if confinement of an individual is a ‘necessary and proper’ thing to do,” he said, “then how could it not be similarly ‘necessary and proper’ to confine an individual whose mental illness threatens others to the same degree?”
In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said Breyer’s opinion “comes perilously close to transforming the necessary and proper clause into a basis for the national police power that we always have rejected.”
The necessary and proper clause authorizes Congress to enact only those laws that facilitate federal powers enumerated in the Constitution, he said. But Section 4248 is unrelated to any enumerated powers, Justice Thomas said in his dissent, which was joined by Justice Antonin Scalia.
“Protecting society from violent sexual offenders is certainly an important end,” Thomas wrote. “But the Constitution does not vest in Congress the authority to protect society from every bad act that might befall it.”
Under the framework of the Constitution, those powers reside with the state governments, Thomas said.
The lopsided 7 to 2 result in the case suggests that federalism is no longer a high priority within the high court’s conservative wing. Under former Chief Justice William Rehnquist the court’s conservatives aggressively enforced the federal-state balance of power, ruling frequently to uphold state sovereign power in the face of what conservative justices viewed as federal encroachment.
Although the federal inmates lost their case on Monday, the litigation may not be over. The court acknowledged that it was not ruling on whether the civil commitment law complied with constitutional requirements of equal protection and due process. Breyer said the inmates were free to now pursue those constitutional challenges in the lower courts.
The case was US v. Comstock.
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