United States v. Comstock

560 U.S. 126, 130 S. Ct. 1949 (2010)



18 U.S.C.S. § 4248 is reasonably adapted to Congress' power to act as a responsible federal custodian (a power that rests, in turn, upon federal criminal statutes that legitimately seek to implement constitutionally enumerated authority). Congress could have reasonably concluded that federal inmates who suffer from a mental illness that causes them to have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct, 18 U.S.C.S. § 4247(a)(6), would pose an especially high danger to the public if released. And Congress could also have reasonably concluded that a reasonable number of such individuals would likely not be detained by the States if released from federal custody, in part because the Federal Government itself severed their claim to legal residence in any state by incarcerating them in remote federal prisons. Congress' desire to address specific challenges, taken together with its responsibilities as a federal custodian, supports the conclusion that § 4248 satisfies review for means-end rationality, i.e., that it satisfies the United States Constitution's insistence that a federal statute represent a rational means for implementing a constitutional grant of legislative authority. 


In November and December 2006, the Government instituted proceedings in the Federal District Court against the five respondents in this case. Three of the five had previously pleaded guilty in federal court to possession of child pornography and a fourth had pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of a minor. With respect to each of them, the Government claimed that the respondent was about to be released from federal prison, that he had engaged in sexually violent conduct or child molestation in the past, and that he suffered from a mental illness that made him sexually dangerous to  others. During that same time period, the Government instituted similar proceedings against the fifth respondent, who had been charged in federal court with aggravated sexual abuse of a minor, but was found mentally incompetent to stand trial. Each of the five respondents moved to dismiss the civil-commitment proceeding on constitutional grounds. They claimed that the commitment proceeding is, in fact, criminal, not civil, in nature and consequently that it violates the Double Jeopardy Clause, the Ex Post Facto Clause, and the Sixth and Eighth AmendmentsThey claimed that the statute denies them substantive due process and equal protection of the laws. They claimed that it violates their procedural due process rights by allowing a showing of sexual dangerousness to be made by clear and convincing evidence, instead of by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And, finally, they claimed that, in enacting the statute, Congress exceeded the powers granted to it by Article I, § 8, of the Constitution, including those granted by the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. The District Court, accepting two of the respondents' claims, granted their motion to dismiss.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the dismissal. On certiorari, the Fourth Circuit's judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.


Did Congress exceed its authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause in enacting a civil commitment contested statute?




The Necessary and Proper Clause granted Congress broad authority to criminalize conduct, imprison those who engaged in that conduct, and enact laws governing prisons and prisoners in the course of "carrying into Execution" the enumerated powers "vested by" the "Constitution in the Government of the U.S.,"--authority granted by the Necessary and Proper Clause. Section 4248 was a modest addition to a set of federal prison-related mental-health statutes that had existed for many decades, aside from its focus on sexually dangerous persons. The desire to address the specific challenges identified with mentally ill, sexually dangerous federal prisoners, taken together with U.S. responsibilities as a federal custodian with the constitutional power to act to protect communities from the danger its prisoners could pose, satisfied a rational means review. Powers granted by the Necessary and Proper Clause were, by definition, not powers "reserved to the States" under U.S. Const. amend. X, and, § 4248 even required accommodation of state interests. Section 4248was not too sweeping in scope. From the implied power to punish, the federal civil-commitment power was inferred.

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