“United States v. Comstock”

(Prepared by NCSL)

May 24, 2010

On May 17, 2010, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 7-2, held that the necessary and proper clause granted Congress the authority to enact 18 U.S.C §4248, which authorizes the civil commitment of dangerous sexual predators after they complete their federal prison sentences. Originally, four men whose confinement was supposed to end over two years ago challenged this provision of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and safety Act, which was passed in 2006, in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This Court ruled that the provision was unconstitutional, arguing that Congress did not possess the authority to hold “sexually dangerous” inmates indefinitely. While the petitioners challenged the Adam Walsh act on a number of grounds, including the double jeopardy clause, the ex post facto clause, and the sixth and eighth amendments, the Supreme Court limited its ruling to answering the narrow question of whether Congress, under Article 1 of the Constitution has the authority to enact this civil commitment program. This decision overrules the conclusions made by the lower court and affirms Congress’ authority under Article 1. 

Statute summary

            18 USC§4248 gives the Department of Justice the authority to detain a mentally ill, sexually dangerous federal prisoner beyond the date the prisoner would be otherwise released. The process of determining which federal prisoners should be a part of the civil-commitment program includes a number of steps. First, a district court is allowed to order the civil-commitment of an individual if that individual has engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation, currently suffers from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder, and as a result is sexually dangerous to others, because he would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.

            The government must certify to a federal district judge that the prisoner meets the above conditions; once this certification is filed the individual is kept into custody until the government has sufficient time to demonstrate its claims at a hearing through psychiatric or other evidence. At the hearing, the prisoner will be represented by counsel, and have the opportunity to defend the claims brought against him. If the government proves its claims, the court will order the prisoner’s continued commitment.

            Once an individual has been ruled to continued commitment the Attorney General must try to cause the state where that prisoner was tried or domiciled to assume responsibility for his custody, care, and treatment. If a state will not assume responsibility than the Attorney General must place the prisoner in a suitable federal facility.

            Confinement will last until the person is no longer dangerous, due to an improved mental state, or if a state assumes responsibility for the custody, care, and treatment of the prisoner; at that time the prisoner will be transferred to the custody of the state. Prisoners who enter this civil-commitment program are able to request judicial hearings, at six-month intervals, for ongoing psychiatric and judicial review.

Court Reasoning

The breadth of the necessary and proper clause

            The necessary and proper clause grants Congress broad authority to enact federal legislation. As long as laws enacted by Congress are based on one or more of its enumerated powers, outlined in the constitution they are, legal. The statute under question, represents a legitimate means, and is rationally related, to the implementation of Congress’ constitutionally enumerated powers. “Neither Congress’ power to criminalize conduct, nor its power to enact laws governing prisons and prisoners, is explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. But Congress nonetheless possesses broad authority to do each of those things.” 

The long history of federal involvement in this area

            This statute only incrementally extends prison related mental health statutes that have existed for decades. While a history of involvement does not prove constitutionality, it is helpful in reviewing “the reasonableness of the relation between the new statute and preexisting federal interests.” Congress, in the past, has been involved with not only the delivery of mental health care to federal prisoners but has provided for their civil-commitment. “over the span of three decades, Congress created a national, federal civil-commitment program under which any person who was either charged with or convicted of any federal offense in any federal court could be confined in a federal mental institution.” The difference between current law and the statute under consideration is that it focuses on individuals who, “due to a mental illness, are sexually dangerous.”

The government’s custodial interest in protecting the public

            The federal government is the custodian of its prisoners and has the constitutional power to protect the public from dangerous federal prisoners. It has been deemed in the past necessary and proper to maintain custody of prisoners who have dangerous communicable diseases. It is just as necessary and proper to maintain custody of mentally ill prisoners who pose a sexual threat to the public.

Accommodation of state interest

            While states have traditionally exercised broad power to commit persons found to be mentally ill, Article 1 delegates that power to the federal government. This statute does not invade state sovereignty. This statute requires the Attorney General to notify the states that may have claim to authority over a specific prisoner and must encourage such states to take custody of such individuals.

The statute’s narrow scope

            This statute does not rely on a weak connection to Article 1. Past decisions substantiates the Court’s claim that this statute is well within Congress’ power under Article 1. The powers given to the federal government in the Constitution were framed by the founders to expand the federal government’s roles in necessary areas.

For more information, please contact Susan Parnas Frederick (susan.frederick@ncsl.org), Jennifer Aguinzoni (Jennifer.Arguinzoni@ncsl.org) or Sean Kelly (sean.kelly@ncsl.org) at (202-624-5400)

NCSL did not submit a brief in this case.

To read the opinion of the court, follow this link: