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Two Supreme Court Cases

In a 7–2 decision issued today, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government can indefinitely detain “sexually dangerous” prisoners past the completion of their sentences, reversing a federal appellate decision.

Many states already have laws on the books that allow them to “civilly commit” persons determined to be sexually dangerous or otherwise mentally ill, even after they have served their time. But a group of sex offenders in federal prison sued over their commitment under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2006. Their attorneys argued that Congress lacks the power to enact criminal laws not related to the powers reserved for the federal government in the Constitution.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer concluded that

“the Constitution grants Congress the authority to enact [the Walsh Act] as “necessary and proper for carrying into Execution” the powers “vested by” the “Constitution in the Government of the United States.”

Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan argued the government’s case before the Court in January.

In a separate opinion, the Court ruled that sentencing minors to life in prison without the possibility of parole, for non-homicide offenses, violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment.

The case, Graham v. Florida, concerned a 16-year-old boy convicted of burglary and theft and sentenced to probation, whose commitment of further crimes in violation of that probation prompted a judge to sentence him to life in prison. Florida has no parole system.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, concluded that the rarity of life sentences for non-homicide minor offenders across federal and state jurisdictions made those punishments cruel and unusual. As he has done in the past, Kennedy also referenced the rarity of such sentencing processes across the globe:

“Additional support for the Court’s conclusion lies in the fact that the sentencing practice at issue has been rejected the world over: The United States is the only Nation that imposes this type of sen-tence. While the judgments of other nations and the internationalcommunity are not dispositive as to the meaning of the Eighth Amendment, the Court has looked abroad to support its independentconclusion that a particular punishment is cruel and unusual.”

UPDATE: Much, much more from Ed Whelan on both cases, over at Bench Memos.


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