United States v. Comstock (2010)

United States Supreme Court

130 S. Ct. 1949

Nature of Case

Whether it is unconstitutional for the federal government to allow for the civil commitment of sexually dangerous persons following the completion of their federal criminal sentences.

Facts of Case

In 2006, as part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, Congress enacted 18 U.S.C. §4248. Section 4248 allows district courts to order civil commitments for individuals who are presently in custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and who have 1) “previously engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation,” and 2) “currently suffer from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder,” and 3) “as a result of that mental illness, abnormality, or disorder is sexually dangerous to others, in that he would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.” If the Government proves these three criteria by clear and convincing evidence, the individual is remanded to custody of the Attorney General. Confinement in a federal facility continues until the individual’s mental condition improves so that the individual is no longer dangerous, or until a state assumes responsibility for the individual’s custody, care, and treatment.

In November and December 2006, the Government initiated civil commitment proceedings for the five respondents in this case, in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. All five respondents argued for dismissal of their commitments based on multiple constitutional grounds. The District Court accepted two of the grounds and agreed that the Constitution required proof beyond a reasonable doubt and that Congress exceeded its legislative powers according to Article I of the Constitution. The District Court then granted the respondents’ motions to dismiss. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the dismissal on the legislative ground, but did not address other constitutional claims and did not decide the standard-of-proof question. The Government sought and was granted certiorari, but the request was limited to Congress’ authority to enact the §4248 statute.


Does the United States Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause, Article I, §8, clause 18, grant Congress the authority to enact U.S.C. §4248?


In a 7 to 2 decision, the Court concluded the Constitution “authorizes Congress to enact the statute.” The Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and the case was remanded for further proceedings.


In an opinion delivered by Justice Breyer, the Court outlined five considerations which led to their conclusion: 1) the Necessary and Proper Clause grants Congress broad authority to pass laws in furtherance of its constitutionally enumerated powers, 2) Congress has long been involved in the delivery of mental health care to federal prisoners, and has long provided for their civil commitment, 3) there are sound reasons for the enactment (protection of the public), 4) §4248 does not invade the province of state sovereignty, but rather requires accommodation of state interests, and 5) §4248 is narrow in scope, is applied to only a small fraction of federal offenders, and is far from a general police power.

Dissenting opinion

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia dissented on the grounds that §4248 did not execute a specific enumerated power, thus the Necessary and Proper Clause did not empower Congress to enact this statute, and this rendered §4248 unconstitutional. Justice Thomas argued that “the fact that the Federal Government has the authority to imprison a person for the purpose of punishing him for a federal crime – sex related or otherwise – does not provide the Government with the additional power to exercise indefinite civil control over that person.” Justice Thomas voiced concern that allowing §4248 to be upheld based on the Necessary and Proper Clause “comes perilously close to transforming the Necessary and Proper Clause into a basis for the federal police power that we have always rejected.”