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Release of sex offenders delayed

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., put on hold on Friday a federal appeals court ruling that the federal government contended would lead to the early release of “the great majority” of “sexually dangerous” inmates now held in federal prison.  In a brief order, the Chief Justice said there was “a presumption of constitutionality” of the 2006 federal law that the Fourth Circuit Court struck down.  He thus blocked temporarily the Circuit Court ruling, until the Justices act on a new government appeal filed Friday (U.S. v. Comstock, et al., 08-1224).

Roberts took little time to act. The Justice Department in the morning asked for a delay of the appeals court decision, but also sought an “immediate, interim” stay while its request was awaiting the Chief Justice’s reaction. Roberts, without seeking a response from the challengers to the federal law, by late afternoon issued his order fully staying the Circuit Court.

The law at issue is the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, described by one of its Senate sponsors as “the most comprehensive child crimes and protection bill in our nation’s history.”  It was named for a child who died in a brutal crime attributed to a sex offender.

In a ruling on Jan. 8, the Fourth Circuit nullified the part of the Act that allows the government to put in indefinite civil commitment federal prisoners who have been found mentally incompetent to stand trial, or have had criminal charges dismissed because of their mental condition.

Under the Act, government officials certify such an inmate as “sexually dangerous,” and ask a federal judge to order commitment.  Once the government files such a request, release of the inmate is delayed until court-ordered review procedures are completed.  If the judge agrees that the individual meets the dangerousness definition, a commitment order must be issued.  If such an individual cannot be placed in a state facility, they must remain in federal custody until no longer “sexually dangerous.”

The constitutionality of that regime was challenged by five inmates facing commitment in federal court in North Carolina.  The federal Bureau of Prisons facility for most of those who have been certified as “sexually dangerous” is at Butner, N.C., in the Fourth Circuit’s area.   A federal judge, Senior District Judge W. Earl Britt of Raleigh, dismissed the commitment proceedings for each of them.

The Fourth Circuit, in its ruling against the Act’s validity, found that Congress did not have the constitutional authority to create a regime involving “unprecedented [federal] authority over civil commitment — an area long controlled by the states.”  The Court commented: “The Constitution does not empower the federal government to confine a person solely because of asserted ‘sexual dangerousness’ when the government need not allege (let alone prove) that this ‘dangerousness’ violates any federal law.”

That was the only part of the new federal law that was at issue.

The Fourth Circuit was the first appeals court to rule on the Act’s constitutionality; that issue, however, has divided federal District Courts across the country.  The Supreme Court, in rulings in 1997 and 2002, had upheld state legislation on commitment of sexually violent predator acts.  The federal government contended in the case involving the 2006 federal law that Congress was following the Supreme Court’s lead, but challengers contended that the broad commitment scheme of that law differed significantly from what the Justices had upheld.

In asking the Chief Justice to postpone the lower court decision, the Justice Department (in application 08A863) said that the release of inmates at Butner could have come as early as next Tuesday.  The application argued: “The court of appeals has held unconstitutional on its face an important Act of Congress that was passed to protect the public from mentally ill and sexually dangerous persons held in federal custody.”

The stay of the Circuit Court ruling, the Chief Justice’s order said, will last “pending the disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari,” and would remain in effect if review is granted, but otherwise would terminate.