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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Upholds Federal Commitment Law for Sexually Dangerous Offenders

Posted May 17, 2010 9:15 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Developing: The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the government’s authority to hold sexually dangerous criminals after their release from prison.

The 7-2 decision (PDF) said the government could authorize courts to civilly commit such persons under the Constitution’s necessary and proper clause. Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote the majority opinion, SCOTUSblog reports.

In oral arguments, Solicitor General Elena Kagan had urged the court to uphold the civil commitment law, Constitutional Law Prof Blog reported at the time. The government had argued that extended detention of sexually dangerous criminals is "necessary and proper" to run the federal criminal justice system.

The majority acknowledged the argument of Kagan, who has been nominated to replace Justice John Paul Stevens. “Nor need we fear that our holding today confers on Congress a general police power,” Breyer wrote. “As the Solicitor General repeatedly confirmed at oral argument, [the confinement law] is narrow in scope.”

A dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas said Congress can only pass laws that deal with federal powers enumerated in the Constitution. The majority opinion, he wrote, improperly "breathes new life" into the necessary and proper clause and "comes perilously close" to transforming the clause into a basis for federal police power previously rejected by the court. Justice Antonin Scalia partly joined the dissent.

"To be sure, protecting society from violent sexual offenders is certainly an important end," Thomas wrote. "Sexual abuse is a despicable act with untold consequences for the victim personally and society generally. ... But the Constitution does not vest in Congress the authority to protect society from every bad act that might befall it."

The Richmond, Va.-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had struck down the law last year, the Associated Press reports.

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