Supreme Court Looks at Constitutionality of Sex Offender Law

By Richey, Warren | The Christian Science Monitor, January 11, 2010 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Looks at Constitutionality of Sex Offender Law


Richey, Warren, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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. …

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Supreme Court Looks at Constitutionality of Sex Offender Law
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