Monday, May 17, 2010

More from SCOTUS: Congress May Impose Civil Commitment on Mentally-Ill, Dangerous Sex Offenders

The other big SCOTUS decision to come out today is United States v. Comstock. It is a federal case, but it has important implications for state law and for federal-state relationships.

The law in question is 18 U. S. C. §4248, which authorizes a federal district court to order the civil commitment of an offender beyond his or her release date from prison, if the government proves that he or she:

(1) has previously “engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation,”
(2) currently “suffers from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder,”
and (3) “as a result of” that mental illness, abnormality, or disorder is “sexually dangerous to others,” in that “he would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.”

What happens next is an interesting exercise in jurisdictional battle. The AG is supposed to convince a state to take over treatment for the offender, and only if this is unsuccessful, the feds will commit the offender to a federal facility.

Let's first discuss what this decision did NOT deal with. The original standard of proof by the government for civil commitment was "clear and convincing evidence"; the federal district court has decided that standard was not enough and required proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This ruling was not changed by subsequent litigation, so presumably the standard of proof now is beyond a reasonable doubt. If any federal court experts think otherwise, feel free to comment.

SCOTUS, instead, only discussed the other argument, which is that Congress has exceeded its authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause (Art. I, §8, cl. 18). In other words, as Justice Breyer says in his Opinion of the Court, it examined "whether the statute constitutes a means that is rationally related to the implementation of a constitutionally enumerated power." Breyer answers this question in the affirmative, for five reasons:

1. Congress has broad authority to legislate in many arenas not specifically mentioned in the clasue, and in this case, there is a connection between the end (protecting the public) and the means (civil commitment);
2. Congress has long been involved in the issue of mental health care for federal prisoners and civil commitment;
3. There are sound reasons for the law: protecting the public where the states fail to do so.
4. The law does not violate state sovereignty, but rather requires accommodation of state interests; the state may or may not choose to take the federal inmate under its medical wing (moreover, as Justice Kennedy adds in his concurrence in judgment, it does not intervene with the state's ability to decide on civil commitment of its OWN inmates).
5. The law is not excessive; it applies to only a small fraction of federal prisoners who are already in federal custody.

Interestingly, both Justice Alito (who concurred in judgment) and Justices Thomas and Scalia (who dissented) expressed classic concerns about federal standards being applicable to the states and infringing upon their sovereignty. As opposed to the conservative view during the Warren Court days, in which federal standards were pro-defendant, in this case, the dissenters find it difficult to agree to a federal standard that actually generates more punitiveness.

It remains to be seen how much the feds will make use of this new power, and how much the states will acquiesce to the request to host federal inmates in state facilities at the state's expense.

No comments: