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
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
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
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. …