UPDATED: Supreme Court Further Reduces Constitutional Limits on Federal Power | Cato @ Liberty
Posted May 17, 2010on:
You may want to read this one because it explains how the Supreme Court has given Congress a pass to do anything they want based on United States v. Comstock which is in a nut shell is about pedophiles and if they can be locked up forever if they are deemed to be dangerous. The Court ruled that “in effect, Congress has the power to do anything it deems “necessary and proper””… Are you afraid yet? Well you had better be! BB
Posted by Roger Pilon
In his opinion today in United States v. Comstock, Justice Breyer gives us a textbook example of how the Supreme Court, over the years, has converted the Constitution into modern “constitutional law,” which is connected to the Constitution only occasionally. This is policy trumping law, pure and simple.
The question before the Court was whether Congress had the power, under the Constitution, to commit mentally ill, sexually dangerous prisoners beyond the date they would otherwise be released. The problem, as Breyer grants, is that Congress has only certain enumerated powers, and the only power it has to criminalize conduct, beyond the three crimes mentioned in the Constitution, is pursuant to one of those enumerated powers — in particular, through the last of its 18 enumerated powers, its power to enact laws that are “necessary and proper” for “carrying into execution” one of the previous 17 enumerated powers or ends. In other words, Congress can criminalize conduct only if doing so is necessary and proper for carrying out one of its other constitutionally authorized powers.
Under its power to regulate interstate commerce, however, Congress has criminalized all manner of conduct not remotely related to insuring a free national market, the main function of the commerce power. The conduct criminalized here is the possession of child pornography. That’s a responsibility that belongs to the states, under state police power, not to the federal government. And that’s where today’s problem began.
But Breyer has compounded it by holding that even though the Constitution nowhere grants Congress the power to criminalize the conduct in question, Congress can invoke its instrumental power under the Necessary and Proper Clause to commit these prisoners beyond the date they would otherwise be released. In other words, he has turned an instrumental power, dependent on Congress’s other powers, into an independent power. That’s how government expands beyond the limits imposed by the Constitution.
Posted by Ilya Shapiro
As Roger has just blogged, the Supreme Court in today’s Comstock decision has ”turned an instrumental power, dependent on Congress’s other powers, into an independent power.” That is, Justice Breyer’s decision has imbued the Necessary and Proper Clause — which merely gives Congress the power to enact laws that are “necessary and proper” for “carrying into execution” one of the powers enumerated in Article I, section 8 — with independent authority to justify federal power. Thus, in effect, Congress has the power to do anything it deems “necessary and proper” (or, indeed “convenient or useful”), quite apart from whether that thing relates to an enumerated power or not. I explained here why this view — and Breyer’s elaboration on it during oral argument — is wrong.
Without exaggeration, the Comstock decision is one of the most harmful Supreme Court decisions in recent memory. If there is anything worse than the Court’s radical expansion of the Necessary and Proper Clause, it is that seven justices signed onto this sweeping pronouncement. While it isn’t surprising that Justice Breyer, joined by his “progressive” colleagues, would have such an expansive view of federal power, it is disconcerting that Chief Justice Roberts joined the majority opinion in its entirety. And while Justice Kennedy separately counsels that “the Constitution does require the invalidation of congressional attempts to extend federal power in some instances,” it’s hard to see what those instances are in the wake of Comstock. Justice Alito also has some qualms about the reach of the Necessary and Proper Clause but unfortunately is left satisfied that here “there is a substantial link to Congress’ constitutional powers” (adding yet another exception that swallows the constitutional rule on limited congressional power).
Only Justice Thomas, whose magisterial dissent is joined by Justice Scalia, sees today’s decision for what it is, the transformation of the Necessary and Proper Clause into a sort of federal police power, the existence of which the Court has long denied. As Thomas says, ”the Constitution does not vest in Congress the authority to protect society from every bad act that might befall it.” (This is of course counter not only the Court majority but also the immortal words of President George W. Bush that “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”)
About the only good thing about this opinion is that it declined to expand Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause – an alternative justification for the law at issue that the government offered unsuccessfully in the court below and which Solicitor General Elena Kagan abandoned before the Supreme Court.
For more coverage of Comstock, see Josh Blackman’s series of posts and Randy Barnett at the Volokh Conspiracy. Also, here is Cato’s brief on the case (which I summarize here) and my description of Kagan’s response to some of the points we raised.
PLEASE read the referenced material because this ruling is going to be the one that destroys the United States. I wonder how many states will jump on this one? I wonder if any states or anyone for that matter can do anything about this ruling to protect the American people from Congress? BB
Posted by Ilya Shapiro
As Wally points out in his Supreme Court/Kagan roundup, the Court did further damage to principled constitutional interpretation in citing foreign law as support for its holding that life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences are unconstitutional as applied to juveniles committing non-homicide crimes. As I blogged when we filed a brief in the case, Graham v. Florida, “Cato takes no position on the wisdom of these types of sentences, but when evaluating their constitutionality the Court should only consider American law.”
That is, regardless of the criminological or moral merits of juvenile LWOP sentences, the Court ought not consider non-binding provisions of international human rights treaties, other countries’ laws, or customary international law in its analysis (as it unfortunately has in several death penalty cases). The Court should leave to the political branches the decision of whether to transform international norms into domestic law and only allow duly ratified international agreements to override domestic law — as I’ve also described in the Cato Supreme Court Review. Reliance on indefinite international norms undermines both the democratic process and the rule of law, casting considerable uncertainty over many U.S. laws.