Erin Miller at SCOTUSBlog:
The Court issued four opinions today, including two in the long-awaited cases about juvenile imprisonment without parole, Graham and Sullivan v. Florida. The rulings are:
In United States v. Comstock (08-1224), in an opinion by Justice Breyer, the Court reverses and remands the lower court’s decision. The vote is 7-2, with Justice Thomas dissenting, joined by Justice Scalia. Justice Kennedy concurs in the judgment only, joined by Justice Alito.
- Holding: The Court upholds the law passed by Congress to order the civil commitment of a mentally ill federal prisoner who is a sex offender with the commitment to continue beyond the date the inmate otherwise would be released.
In Graham v. Florida (08-7412), the Court reverses and remands, in an opinion again by Justice Kennedy. The vote is 6-3, with Justice Thomas dissenting, joined by Justice Scalia and in part by Justice Alito. Justice Alito files a separate dissenting opinion for himself. Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, concurs, even though all three join the majority opinion, and the Chief Justice concurs in the result alone.
Holding: It is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without parole when the crime does not involve murder, given the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.
This morning the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in United States v. Comstock, a challenge to the federal government’s authority to civilly commit a “sexually dangerous” federal prisoner beyond the time of his sentence. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the federal government lacked such authority within its enumerated powers. The Supreme Court disagreed, voting 7–2 to uphold the federal government’s commitment power under the Necessary & Proper Clause. Justice Breyer wrote for the majority. Justices Kennedy & Alito concurred in the judgment, and Justice Thomas dissented, joined by Justice Scalia. The opinions are here. Some earlier VC posts on the case are here and here. I haven’t had a chance to read the opinions yet, but given that Justice Breyer wrote the majority — and that he is such an avowed advocate of broad federal power — I suspect this decision is a major setback for those seeking to limit the federal government to its constitutionally enumerated powers.
Jacob Sullum at Reason:
The Court, which in 1997 rejected a challenge to a similar Kansas law based on the Double Jeopardy, Due Process, and Ex Post Facto Clauses, did not deal with the usual constitutional objections in this case. Instead it addressed the question of whether the federal government, as opposed to the states, is authorized to detain people based on sex crimes they might commit in the future. The seven-justice majority concluded that it is, finding that civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” prisoners is a “necessary and proper” means of “carrying into execution” the federal government’s enumerated powers. Yet the majority opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer never identifies the powers that provide the authority for this law. The omission is telling, especially since all nine justices agree that the Necessary and Proper Clause does not give Congress any independent powers.
Instead of citing specific powers, Breyer says the civil commitment law is justified by whatever enumerated powers underlie the federal criminal statutes that sexually dangerous prisoners are convicted of violating. Three of the five prisoners in this case, for example, were convicted of possessing child pornography, which Congress banned based on its authority to “regulate commerce…among the several states.” Other cases might involve people whose crimes were treated as federal offenses because of a case-specific connection to interstate commerce, such as a bias-motivated assault committed with a baseball bat manufactured in another state. (I kid you not.) As Breyer notes, “the Constitution…nowhere speaks explicitly about the creation of federal crimes beyond those related to ‘counterfeiting,’ ‘treason,’ or ‘Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas’ or ‘against the Law of Nations.'” But that has not stopped Congress from criminalizing a wide range of offenses (including many already addressed by state laws), based on thin or nonexistent constitutional pretexts.
Dissenters were Justices Scalia and Thomas, who said that yes, sexual violence is a terrible thing, but there is simply nothing in the Constitution giving Congress the right to infringe an individual’s liberty to this degree. As Justice Thomas wrote in his dissent, “[T]he Constitution does not vest in Congress the authority to protect society from every bad act that might befall it.” Justice Thomas noted the potential for abuse in expanding the state’s police powers over individuals. He also said that what’s at issue is not what powers the Constitution should have granted to Congress, but what powers the Constitution actually has granted to Congress.
It’s a principled stand, to be sure, but I find myself pleased that the Court ruled as it did, given the dangers that certain sex criminals (e.g., child molesters) pose to society. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, in successfully arguing the government’s case before the Court, said this is analogous to the government’s right to hold prisoners who have a deadly and highly contagious disease after they finish their sentences, for the common good. That makes sense to me, but Justice Thomas’s dissent makes me worried that I’m too willing to yield on a key principle because I like the result of this judgement.
Scott Lemieux at Lawyers Guns and Money:
Deciding an appalling case in which a 17-year old was given life without parole for a violating parole, the Supreme Court held today that life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders violate the Eight Amendment to the Constitution. And while I had feared a “minimalist” opinion that would create a balancing test that state courts would always resolve in favor of the state, in the majority opinion (see Part III C) Justice Kennedy argues convincingly that a categorical rule is necessary in this case. Chief Justice Roberts — in what I’m guessing was an attempt, if not to get a minimalist majority opinion, at least to prevent 5 votes for a categorical rule — wrote a concurring opinion arguing that the sentence should be ruled unconstitutional based on a case-by-case balancing test, but didn’t find any takers.
Clarence Thomas’s dissent — joined entirely by Scalia and in its most important aspects by reasonable, moderate, thinking person’s conservative Sam Alito — does make one convincing point: Kennedy’s argument that there’s an “emerging consensus” against life-without-parole for juveniles is unconvincing. The Court’s majority opinion does indeed reflect an “independent judgment” that the Eighth Amendment bans such sentences. Where I disagree with Thomas is that there’s something wrong with this. Exercising independent judgment is what courts do when exercising judicial review. And, of course, when policy outcomes they cherish are at stake Thomas and Scalia are perfectly happy to exercise their “independent judgment” that decisions made by electorally accountable officials are unconstitutional even in the absence of an emerging consensus or a compelling argument that as originally understood the Constitution forbade those practices. And sentencing is one area where where the normative unattractiveness of originalism is particularly stark. Reminding me again while I’ll miss him, Stevens sums it up devastatingly in his brief concurrence:
Society changes. Knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes. Punishments that did not seem cruel and unusual at one time may, in the light of reason and experience, be found cruel and unusual at a later time; unless we are to abandon the moral commitment embodied in the Eighth Amendment , proportionality review must never become effectively obsolete.
While Justice Thomas would apparently not rule out a death sentence for a $50 theft by a 7-year-old, the Court wisely rejects his static approach to the law. Standards of decency have evolved since 1980. They will never stop doing so.
And you know who agrees with this in his more candid moments? Antonin Scalia, who has expressly said that he would not uphold a sentence for flogging even though it would seem to be permitted under an originalist understanding of the Eight Amendment was right. Not only is that Scalia right, but it’s impossible to explain why the framers wrote the Eighth Amendment the way they did if they meant only to proscribe a small, specific set of punishments that were illegal at the time the Bill of Rights was ratified.
The justices should realize that it is the age of reason, not adulthood, that applies here. I will grant that legislatures can void locking someone up for life for a crime that was not murder and committed two days before his 18th birthday. But it is a legislative, not a judicial, determination.
The only way to recognize “evolving standards of decency” is by constitutional amendment.
That is not the case here. This decision is a fraud.
Justice Kennedy and the 4 liberal justices voted to ignore the Constitution once again. Cruel and unusual? At the time the Constitution was written, we hung horse thieves even if they were not 18. There was no cruelty then and this is not cruel now. And it must be both cruel AND unusual to be unconstitutional.
So today, twice the court overstepped its bounds.
The first in allowing people to remain in jail for longer than the statue calls, and in letting people go free early. There is no rhyme or reason or reconciliation of these two decisions.
Too much power and too little resistance by our Supreme Court.
It is difficult indeed to reconcile these two simultaneous rulings. Legislatures are now permitted to hold already convicted criminals past the end of their sentences, but they may not make the subjective determination that near-adults convicted of heinous crimes may be permanently removed from civil society.
In most cases, I prefer bright-line rules to “balancing tests.” But I don’t make a fetish of it. Thus, even leaving aside the jarring contrast between these rulings, it is inexplicable to me how the Court could have thrown out its longstanding rule that balancing competing societal interests in making sentencing decisions is the proper province of legislatures to reach the result in Comstock. But substituting one bright line for another, more clement one at least has the small advantage of erring on the side of prudence where lifetime sentences are concerned. That only serves to highlight the immense wrongness of the Graham ruling.
For decades we have seen sex offender punishments spiral out of control. Until today, the Constitutional excesses have mainly been in the form of ever-increasing post hoc sentencing enhancements related to how long someone convicted of peeing in public years ago will continue being treated the same as a a newly convicted child rapist. Today’s ruling will pour gasoline on the conflagration. Juxtaposed against the stripping away of the legislature’s longstanding power to send child rapists away for life if they happened to commit the crime the day before their 18th birthday, this farcical, results-based judicial activism (which will only allow them to be held permanently by extra-constitutionally extending whatever sentences they can now be given) is beyond comprehension.