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U.S. Supreme Court Holds Federal Civil Commitment Statute Lawfully Enacted

Congress did not exceed its powers under the Necessary and Proper Clause in authorizing the federal civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” federal prisoners upon the completion of their sentences, the U.S. Supreme Court decided May 17, 2010.

Shortly before Graydon Comstock’s sentence was to expire, the government filed a certification with the US District Court in North Carolina designating Comstock as a “sexually dangerous” prisoner, the first step in the federal civil commitment process. 18 U.S.C. § 4248(a). The government’s certification automatically stayed Comstock’s release until a hearing could be held to determine whether Comstock met the statutory requirements for civil commitment.

The district court, however, dismissed the civil commitment proceeding against Comstock, holding the statute exceeded Congress’ legislative powers under the Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause. In addition, the court held that the statute impermissibly lowered the burden of proof required for civil commitment from proof beyond a reasonable doubt to proof by clear and convincing evidence. The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that § 4248 exceeded Congress’ authority. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed.

In a 7-2 opinion written by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court held that § 4248 was a valid exercise of Congress’ authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause. Five considerations informed this conclusion.

First, while the power to authorize civil commitment is not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, the statute represented a “reasonably adapted” means to “the attainment of a legitimate end under the commerce power or under the powers that the Constitution grants Congress the authority to implement,” the court wrote.

In so holding, the court likened § 4248 to situations where Congress has acted in the absence of “explicitly mentioned” authority in the Constitution, such as when it has enacted criminal laws, and laws related to prisons and prisoners. In each of these situations, Congress possessed “broad authority” to do these things “in the course of ‘carrying into Execution’ the enumerated powers ‘vested by’ the ‘Constitution in the Government of the United States,’ Art. I. § 8, cl. 18--authority granted by the Necessary and Proper Clause,” the court wrote.

Section 4248 was also a proper exercise of Congress’ authority because it was only a “modest addition” to existing law. Current law already allows the commitment of mentally-ill prisoners, the court noted.

Furthermore, as “the custodian of its prisoners,” the federal government “has the constitutional power to act in order to protect nearby (and other) communities from the danger federal prisoners may pose,” the court wrote.

Finally, the statute was a permissible exercise of Congress’ authority because it requires the Attorney General to seek state placement of civilly committed offenders, and because it is not “sweeping in scope.” The law only applies to federal prisoners, and has only been invoked against a few prisoners, the court emphasized.

The judgment of the court of appeals was accordingly reversed. The court did not pass judgment on Comstock’s other challenges to the law, leaving them for resolution in the courts below. See: United States v. Comstock, 130 S.Ct. 1949 (2010).

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Related legal case

United States v. Comstock