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United States v. Comstock

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Brief Fact Summary.

Congress enacted a staute that allowed district courts to order the civil commitment of individuals in federal prison under certain circumstances. The government argued that Comstock was an individual subject to regulation under the statute.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Under the Necessary and Proper Clause, Congress could allow district courts to order the civil commitment of federal prisoners under certain circumstances.

The Supreme Court proffered five considerations to reach its conclusion: (1) that the Necessary and Proper Clause granted Congress broad authority to enact federal legislation. McCulloch v. Maryland, (2) that the statute at issue was a modest addition to an existing tradition of federal laws regulating the issue-area (3) that the regulated individuals were already in federal custody, and that the government, as federal custodian, had the power to act to protect communiites from the danger the regulated individuals might pose, (4) that the statute properly accounted for states’ interests, and (5) that the links between the statute and an enumerated Article I power are not too attenuated, and the statute was not too broad in scope.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Indeed even the dissent acknowledges that Congress has the implied power to criminalize any conduct that might interfere with the exercise of an enumerated power, and also the additional power to imprison people who violate those (inferentially authorized) laws, and the additional power to provide for the safe and reasonable management of those prisons, and the additional power to regulate the prisoners' behavior even after their release.

View Full Point of Law
Facts.

A federal statute allowed district courts to order the civil commitment of an individual currently in federal prison custody if the individual (1) previously engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation, (2) suffered from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder, and (3) as a result of their mental impairment, was “sexually dangerous to others”in that they would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexual violence or child molestation if released.” Upon such a showing, the statute provided that the court would order the prisoner’s continued commitment in the Attorney General’s custody, and the Attorney General had to encourage the state were the person was tried or domiciled to assume custody and care of the individual. If the state refused, the Attorney General would place the individual in a suitable federal facility for treatment. The government claimed that Comstock was an individual who fell under the statute’s scope.

Issue.

Did the Necessary and Proper Clause give Congress the authority to enact a staute that allowed district courts to order the civil commitment of individuals in federal prison under certain circumstances?

Held.

Yes, the the Necessary and Proper Clause gave Congress the authority to enact a staute that allowed district courts to order the civil commitment of individuals in federal prison under certain circumstances.

Dissent.

Justice Justice Thomas

Justice Thomas argued the Necessary and Proper Clause only gives Congress the power to carry out ennumerated powers, and that the government did not show that the statute at issue served any enumerated power. He also argued that the Supreme Court replaced a two-step framework from McCulloch with a novel five-step test with no explaination as to why it did so, and without sufficiently explaining the new test.

Discussion.

The Supreme Court based its holding on five considerations, taken together:

First, that the Necessary and Proper Clause granted Congress broad authority to enact federal legislation. McCuloch v. Maryland. The Necessary and Proper Clause gives Congress the authority to pass several types of laws, even such authority is not mentioned explicitly in the Constitution.

Second, that the civil commitment staute at issue was a modest addition to an existing tradition of federal laws related to prisoners’ mental health.

Third, that the regulated individuals were already in federal custody, and that the government, as federal custodian, had the power to act to protect communiites from the danger the regulated individuals might pose.

Fourth, that the statute properly accounted for states’ interest by requiring the Attorney General to inform the state in which the federal prisoner is domiciled or was tried, and to encourage the state to assert their authority and assume custody of the individual.

Fifth, that the links between the statute and an enumerated Article I power are not too attenuated, and the statute is not too broad in scope. The Supreme Court rejected the argument that, when legislating purusant to the Necessary and Proper Clause, Congress’ authority can be no more than one step removed from a specifically ennumerated power.

According to the Supreme Court, the combination of these five considerations justify its holding that the statute is a necessary and proper means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, punish their violation, imprison violators, provide for imprisoned individuals, and maintain security of those who are not imprisoned but could be affected by the federal imprisonment of others.


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