January 13, 2010

Another issue of prisoner rights

SCOTUS considered a very interesting challenge today, and raised questions regarding the state’s power to detain prisoners considered “sexually dangerous” beyond time sentenced.

It was a year ago that the 4th Circuit ruled that neither the commerce clause nor the necessary and proper clause of our Constitution provided Congress the necessary authority to civilly commit persons convicted under the provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. The court also implied that the commitment provision of the act violated 10A state’s rights.

United States v. Comstock challenged the Act, and in arguments today, U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan defended the federal government’s actions in civilly committing these prisoners for a longer time than they were sentenced; potentially indefinitely.

Kagan claimed the provision was necessary and that Congress could reasonably find it to be so. States, she said, are unwilling to take responsibility for mentally ill and sexually dangerous convicts when their federal sentence ends, thus shifting the onus to the feds.

The office of the Federal Public Defender represented the opposition, countering that the federal government has no right to extend the sentences once the convicts have met their obligation. G. Alan DuBois, Assistant Public Defender, stated in his argument, “… at that point, any further detention must stand on an independent conviction."

The Justices tossed both lawyers a series of hypothetical situations, testing the validity and scope of their arguments, with Justice Scalia pounding particularly hard on Kagan.

"I'm not terribly impressed with your argument,” stated the Justice. This is a recipe for the federal government taking over everything. The states won't do it, so the federal government will."

Then it was Justices Stevens and Bader’s turn to take DuBois to task, with Stevens telling DuBois, "I think, as the case comes to us, we have to assume there are cases out there in which there will be no solution [except for action by the federal government]."

Justice Ginsburg then stated, "We're talking about endangering the health and safety of people, so the government has some responsibility, doesn't it? "

While I am sure there are some limits that can be found, and perhaps the civil commitment of certain sexually dangerous and mentally incompetent individuals may indeed be necessary, I find the arguments offered by Kagan, and apparently supported by Stevens and Ginsburg, seriously lacking in weight. The people, I don’t think, really want the federal government as nanny.

In this instance at least, I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with Justice Antonin Scalia.



Anonymous said...

I wish you had stated the position of Justice Antonin Scalia. This issue seems a very slippery slope indeed.
I recall that a family member can request the court to commit another family member in order to prevent injury due to mental imbalance - is there not a way in civil courts to commit a sexual criminal whose release clearly puts public citizens in danger?

Mule Breath said...

Scalia takes the view that there is no constitutional authority to hold these or any prisoners beyond fulfillment of sentence. The Adam Walsh bill attempts to justify the commitment under the commerce clause, but that is beyond tenuous. Kagan tried arguing with the necessary and proper clause, but that is weak as well, and the bill wasn’t written with that language anyway.

I don’t argue that certain individuals should be kept off the streets, but this is not the function of the federal government. Such commitments can and should be done at the state level. It generally isn’t done though, and usually because the states do not want to fund the necessary institutions.