United States v. Comstock

PETITIONER:United States
RESPONDENT:Graydon Earl Comstock, Jr., et al.

DOCKET NO.: 08-1224
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 560 US 126 (2010)
GRANTED: Jun 22, 2009
ARGUED: Jan 12, 2010
DECIDED: May 17, 2010

Elena Kagan – Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner
G. Alan DuBois – for the respondents

Facts of the case

Convicted sex offenders moved to dismiss petitions requesting their indefinite civil commitment under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. A North Carolina federal district court dismissed the petitions. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. It held that the Protection and Safety Act exceeded the scope of Congress’ authority when it enacted a law that could confine a person solely because of “sexual dangerousness,” and the government need not even allege that this “dangerousness” violated any federal law.


Did Congress have the constitutional authority to enact the Adam Walsh Protection and Safety Act?

Media for United States v. Comstock

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 12, 2010 in United States v. Comstock

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 17, 2010 in United States v. Comstock

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has the opinion in this morning in case 08-1224 United States versus Comstock.

Stephen G. Breyer:

The federal statute authorizes federal authorities to confine a federal prisoner, who is mentally ill and sexually dangerous; dangerous to others.

Beyond the time, his prison term expires.

The respondents here challenged the statute on several different constitutional grounds only one of which is before us.

Does Article’s necessary and proper clause, grant Congress the power, the authority to enact the statute, we conclude that it does.

Article 1 sets forth a list of specifically enumerated legislative powers that the Constitution grants to Congress.

It says for example, that Congress can regulate interstate and foreign commerce.

It can establish Post offices and so forth.

Article 1 also contains the necessary and proper clause which grants Congress the authority, “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers.”

This court is pointed out that every law enacted by congress must be based on one or more enumerated powers.

But as the court earlier pointed out in the famous case McCulloch v. Maryland, a government entrusted with such powers must also be entrusted with ample means for their execution.

In language that is come to define the clause, Chief Justice Marshall wrote that the end be legitimate, that it be within the scope of the Constitution and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution are constitutional.

The necessary and proper clause thus supplements the authority granted in the specifically enumerated clauses with broad powers to enact laws that are convenient or useful, or conducive to the more specific authorities, beneficial exercise, and the court has since added that the choice of means for pursuing constitutionally delegated objectives is a matter primarily to the judgment of Congress.

Now the statute before us in our review meets all these criteria and any other related criteria.

Congress certainly can enact criminal laws necessary and proper to the execution of specifically enumerated power, such as the Commerce Power and the Post Office Power, so forth.

Thus the necessary and proper clause authorizes the enactment of further laws providing relevant punishment, including prison.

It authorizes the enactment of more detailed laws providing say for the training of federal prisoners for work after release or otherwise preparing prisoners for relief including laws that say just when and under what circumstances prisoners will be released, once their prison terms have expired.

In a word, the necessary and proper clause provides authority for Congress to enact detailed legislation dealing with a host of subsidiary matters, concerning the implementation of programs that are properly the subject of legislation under Article 1, that is what the necessary and proper clause is all about.

To return to the present case, in our view, given the Constitution’s authority to enact criminal laws, to provide for prisons and to set forth the details of prison administration, the necessary and proper clause also provides authority for a Federal Law permitting the Attorney General to set forth the terms of the federal prisoners release, including the authority to provide for continued confinement even after expiration of his prison term in appropriate circumstances.

Imagine for an example, an instance where prison was too ill to leave the prison hospital.

Similarly, no one doubts that the clause would authorize a law permitting the authorities to retain a prisoner who had a severe communicable disease that might threaten the community and as far as basic constitutional authority is concerned, we can see no significant difference between the last mentioned case of a prisoner ill, was say communicable tuberculosis and a prisoner who is mentally ill and dangerous to himself or to others.

At the same time the statute before us is narrowly drawn so as not to impinge unreasonably upon the authority of the states.

It permits federal authorities to detain the mentally ill and dangerous individual, only if the state where the individual was domiciled, or where he was tried refuses to do so, and it permits federal detention only until that person is no longer dangerous or a state will assume responsibility for his custody, care and treatment.

We explore these matters further in our opinion, where we also refer to president in support of our conclusions.

We do not consider whether the statute is constitutional or unconstitutional for other reasons related for example to due process guarantees for those other matters are not before us.

We reverse the contrary determination of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion concurring in the result.

Justice Alito has filed an opinion concurring in the result.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Scalia concurs in part.