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.
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.
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."
Section 4248's civil commitment procedure has no direct tie to
the traditional source of congressional power: the regulation of
interstate commerce under the commerce clause. So Solicitor General
Kagan is arguing that it is supported through the Constitution's
necessary and proper clause as a necessary feature of the federal
criminal justice and penal system. …