Comstock's Brave New World?

You could be forgiven the view that the federal government was one of limited powers. That was the framer's intent, after all. Those powers not expressly given to the federal government were retained either by the people or the state. A significant portion of our history has been a sustained struggled about where to draw the line distinguishing state and federal power.

The United States Supreme Court all but ignored that line in today's decision in United States v. Comstock, et al. It did so in a way that terrifies. Call in the therapeutic police writ large.

The case involved the decision of the federal government to detain five prisoners after they had served their criminal sentences. The men were all convicted sex offenders. Because the government believed that the men were mentally ill and still posed a danger to reoffend, they moved to commit them civilly, under a federal statute. Three of the men were convicted of possession of child pornography, one was convictetd of illegal contact with a minor, the fifth was convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a minor.

Under the federal civil commitment statute, the men could be detained after serving their sentences if the Government showed, by clear and convincing evidence, that the men were: 1.0 either previously or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation;" 2.) suffered from a serious mental illness, abnormality or disorder; and, 3.) are sexually dangerous to others or would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation. A potential detainee has a right to a hearing, counsel, and the right to put on evidence. But a detainee has no right to a jury. This loss of liberty is regarded as civil rather than criminal in character. Whether a person is to remain detained can be reviewed every six months on demand of the detainee.

The majority decision of the Court, written by Justice Breyer, justifies this sweeping new federal power as little more than business as usual. This power, he writes, is simply a power necessary and proper under Art. I, Section 8 of the federal Constitution.

What shocks is that the Court refuses even to make passing reference to the Ninth Amendment of the Constitution. That amendment, the forgotten child of the federal Constitution, reads as follows: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." The Court has never, in more than two hundred years of jurisprudence, paid more than lip service to those rights retained by the people.

This decision explands federal power in significant ways. First, it applies a statute that was no doubt intended to hold violent felons to those accused of mere looking at pictures, the three detainees accused of looking a child pornography. Assuming that this is a disorder, is it really a crime involving sexual violence to a child or child molestation? On this broad application of the statute, the federal government would justified in seeking unlimited detention of anyone who looked at a prohibited image of a child.

Students of constitutional law are familiar with the enumerated powers doctrine. It is said that the federal government is one of limited powers. To the states, the theory goes, belongs the police power, that authority governing the health, education and welfare of a citizenry. What justifies this sweeping rebuke of the state's ability to police its citizenry?

Granting the federal government what amounts to an expanded police power in a climate of moral panic is chilling. The federal government does on occasion prosecute men federal prosecutors believe have been dealt with too leniently by the states. This is no violation of double jeopardy, lawyers know, as different sovereigns can see things differently.

The federal government has customarity served as a counterweight when the states succumb to craziness. In Comstock, the Court became the chief cheerleader for what can easily amount to state-sponsored craziness.
Comments (1)
Posted on May 17, 2010 at 2:34 pm by Avendora
You speak of sovereignty. What happened to the sov...
You speak of sovereignty. What happened to the sovereignty of the people themselves?
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About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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