WASHINGTON, May 17, 2010 -- A 7-to-2 majority of the Supreme Court ruled today that Congress has the authority to pass a law allowing federal prisoners who have been deemed "sexually dangerous" to be held beyond the date of their original sentence.
The law, a provision of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, was passed in 2006. A lower court had ruled that Congress overstepped its boundaries in passing the law.
But Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, found that the Constitution grants Congress the authority to enact the law.
"The statute is a necessary and proper means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned, and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned but who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others," he wrote.
The decision stemmed from the case of Graydon Comstock, who found that days from finishing his sentence for possession of child pornography, the attorney general had made a determination that he must stay in jail because he had been certified by the government as a "sexually dangerous person."
Comstock and five other respondents argued the designation was unconstitutional because Congress had exceeded its powers in passing the law.
The law allows confinement in a federal facility until either the person's mental condition improves to the point where he is no longer dangerous, or the state assumes responsibility for his care and treatment.
Breyer wrote, "Congress routinely exercises its authority to enact criminal laws in furtherance of, for example, its enumerated powers to regulate interstate and foreign commerce, to enforce civil rights, to spend funds for the general welfare, to establish federal courts, to establish post office, to regulate bankruptcy, to regulate naturalization and so forth."
At oral arguments, Solicitor General Elena Kagan told the court that the law has only been applied to a small fraction of federal prisoners. One-hundred-five individuals have been subject to the law out of more than 188,000 federal inmates.
Justice Thomas: Let States, Not Feds, Handle Dangerous Prisoners
Breyer, citing the government's argument, said the law is a "reasonably adapted and narrowly tailored means of pursuing the government's legitimate interest as a federal custodian in the responsible administration of its prison system."
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that states have the power to take charge of a federal prisoner released within their jurisdiction. "The assumption" Thomas wrote, "that a state knowingly would fail to exercise that authority is, in my view, implausible."
Thomas criticized the majority for assuming that without the law, the state would take no action when informed by the Bureau of Prisons that a sexually dangerous federal prisoner was about to be released within the state's jurisdiction.
"In light of the plethora of state laws enacted in recent decades to protect communities from sex offenders," he wrote, "the likelihood of such an occurrence seems quite remote."