In a broad endorsement of federal power, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that Congress has the authority under the Constitution to allow the continued civil commitment of sex offenders after they have completed their criminal sentences.
The 7-to-2 decision touched off a heated debate among the justices on a question that has lately engaged the Tea Party movement and opponents of the new health care law: What limits does the Constitution impose on Congress’s power to legislate on matters not specifically delegated to it in Article I?I think this decision is interesting, and what adds to this situation is that the President's supreme court nominee, Elena Kagan, had argued for this case.
The federal law at issue in the case allows the government to continue to detain prisoners who had engaged in sexually violent conduct, suffered from mental illness and would have difficulty controlling themselves. If the government is able to prove all of this to a judge by “clear and convincing” evidence — a heightened standard, but short of “beyond a reasonable doubt” — it may hold such prisoners until they are no longer dangerous or a state assumes responsibility for them.
Liptak writes that the Stephen G Breyer wrote the opinion for himself and four other justices, stating the following:
Congress has the undoubted powers, Justice Breyer said, to enact criminal laws in furtherance of its enumerated powers and to create a prison system to punish people who violate those laws, though neither power is explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. 'The civil commitment statute before us represents a modest addition," he added, comparing it to medical quarantine.I have mixed opinions regarding the decision, and can understand the the cases made for and against prolonged detainment beyond the original sentence, but I fear that this decision will be politicized by the far right, especially because of Kagan's involvement, and it probably won't be long before Glenn Beck argues that Kagan is trying to use this to imprison political opposition.
Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia were the dissenting justices.
“The fact that the federal government has the authority to imprison a person for the purpose of punishing him for a federal crime — sex-related or otherwise — does not provide the government with the additional power to exercise indefinite civil control over that person,” Justice Thomas wrote.
Two others, Justices Alito and Kennedy, voted with the court but had differing opinions from Breyer's, with Alito concerned about “the breadth of the court’s language” and “the ambiguity of the standard that the court applies,” while Kennedy mentioned the 10th Amendment, writing that "the Constitution delegates limited powers to the national government and then reserves the remainder for the states (or the people), not the other way around, as the court’s analysis suggests."
Personally, if I had to vote on this decision, I probably would have voted against the civil confinement law. Alito, Kennedy, and Thomas had made a stronger argument against the law in my opinion.