United States v. Comstock,
560 U.S. 126 (2010)

Annotate this Case




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 08–1224. Argued January 12, 2010—Decided May 17, 2010

Federal law allows a district court to order the civil commitment of a mentally ill, sexually dangerous federal prisoner beyond the date he would otherwise be released. 18 U. S. C. §4248. The Government instituted civil-commitment proceedings under §4248 against respondents, each of whom moved to dismiss on the ground, inter alia, that, in enacting the statute, Congress exceeded its powers under the Necessary and Proper Clause, U. S. Const., Art. I, §8, cl. 18. Agreeing, the District Court granted dismissal, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed on the legislative-power ground.

Held: The Necessary and Proper Clause grants Congress authority sufficient to enact §4248. Taken together, five considerations compel this conclusion. Pp. 5–22.

   (1) The Clause grants Congress broad authority to pass laws in furtherance of its constitutionally enumerated powers. It makes clear that grants of specific federal legislative authority are accompanied by broad power to enact laws that are “convenient, or useful” or “conducive” to the enumerated power’s “beneficial exercise,” e.g., McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 413, 418, and that Congress can “legislate on that vast mass of incidental powers which must be involved in the constitution,” id., at 421. In determining whether the Clause authorizes a particular federal statute, there must be “means-ends rationality” between the enacted statute and the source of federal power. Sabri v. United States, 541 U. S. 600, 605. The Constitution “addresse[s]” the “choice of means” “primarily … to the judgment of Congress. If it can be seen that the means adopted are really calculated to attain the end, the degree of their necessity, the extent to which they conduce to the end, the closeness of the relationship between the means adopted and the end to be attained, are matters for congressional determination alone.” Burroughs v. United States, 290 U. S. 534, 547–548. Thus, although the Constitution nowhere grants Congress express power to create federal crimes beyond those specifically enumerated, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned, or to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned but who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others, Congress possesses broad authority to do each of those things under the Clause. Pp. 5–9.

   (2) Congress has long been involved in the delivery of mental health care to federal prisoners, and has long provided for their civil commitment. See, e.g., Act of Mar. 3, 1855, 10 Stat. 682; Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, 18 U. S. C. §§4241–4247. A longstanding history of related federal action does not demonstrate a statute’s constitutionality, see, e.g., Walz v. Tax Comm’n of City of New York, 397 U. S. 664, 678, but can be “helpful in reviewing the substance of a congressional statutory scheme,” Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U. S. 1, 21, and, in particular, the reasonableness of the relation between the new statute and pre-existing federal interests. Section 4248 differs from earlier statutes in that it focuses directly upon persons who, due to a mental illness, are sexually dangerous. Many of these individuals, however, were likely already subject to civil commitment under §4246, which, since 1949, has authorized the postsentence detention of federal prisoners who suffer from a mental illness and who are thereby dangerous (whether sexually or otherwise). The similarities between §4246 and §4248 demonstrate that the latter is a modest addition to a longstanding federal statutory framework. Pp. 9–14.

   (3) There are sound reasons for §4248’s enactment. The Federal Government, as custodian of its prisoners, has the constitutional power to act in order to protect nearby (and other) communities from the danger such prisoners may pose. Moreover, §4248 is “reasonably adapted” to Congress’ power to act as a responsible federal custodian. United States v. Darby, 312 U. S. 100, 121. Congress could have reasonably concluded that federal inmates who suffer from a mental illness that causes them to “have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct,” §4247(a)(6), would pose an especially high danger to the public if released. And Congress could also have reasonably concluded that a reasonable number of such individuals would likely not be detained by the States if released from federal custody. Congress’ desire to address these specific challenges, taken together with its responsibilities as a federal custodian, supports the conclusion that §4248 satisfies “review for means-end rationality,” Sabri, supra, at 605. Pp. 14–16.

   (4) Respondents’ contention that §4248 violates the Tenth Amendment because it invades the province of state sovereignty in an area typically left to state control is rejected. That Amendment does not “reserve to the States” those powers that are “delegated to the United States by the Constitution,” including the powers delegated by the Necessary and Proper Clause. See, e.g., New York v. United States, 505 U. S. 144, 159. And §4248 does not “invade” state sovereignty, but rather requires accommodation of state interests: Among other things, it directs the Attorney General to inform the States where the federal prisoner “is domiciled or was tried” of his detention, §4248(d), and gives either State the right, at any time, to assert its authority over the individual, which will prompt the individual’s immediate transfer to State custody, §4248(d)(1). In Greenwood v. United States, 350 U. S. 366, 375–376, the Court rejected a similar challenge to §4248’s predecessor, the 1949 statute described above. Because the version of the statute at issue in Greenwood was less protective of state interests than §4248, a fortiori, the current statute does not invade state interests. Pp. 16–18.

   (5) Section 4248 is narrow in scope. The Court rejects respondents’ argument that, when legislating pursuant to the Necessary and Proper Clause, Congress’ authority can be no more than one step removed from a specifically enumerated power. See, e.g., McCulloch, supra, at 417. Nor will the Court’s holding today confer on Congress a general “police power, which the Founders denied the National Government and reposed in the States.” United States v. Morrison, 529 U. S. 598, 618. Section §4248 has been applied to only a small fraction of federal prisoners, and its reach is limited to individuals already “in the custody of the” Federal Government, §4248(a). Thus, far from a “general police power,” §4248 is a reasonably adapted and narrowly tailored means of pursuing the Government’s legitimate interest as a federal custodian in the responsible administration of its prison system. See New York, supra, at 157. Pp. 18–22.

   The Court does not reach or decide any claim that the statute or its application denies equal protection, procedural or substantive due process, or any other constitutional rights. Respondents are free to pursue those claims on remand, and any others they have preserved. P. 22.

551 F. 3d 274, reversed and remanded.

   Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Stevens, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., and Alito, J., filed opinions concurring in the judgment. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia, J., joined in all but Part III–A–1–b.

Primary Holding

The Necessary and Proper Clause allows Congress to give the federal government the power to impose civil commitment on sex offenders beyond the period that they can be held after being charged or convicted of a federal crime.


Under 18 U.S.C. Section 4248, federal courts were specifically permitted to order the civil commitment of mentally ill and sexually dangerous federal prisoners beyond the period that they otherwise would be required to be released. Acting pursuant to this law, the federal government brought civil commitment proceedings against a group of prisoners who were due for imminent release. The prisoners sought to dismiss these actions by arguing that they went beyond the scope of Congressional authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause.



  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)
  • John G. Roberts, Jr.
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Sonia Sotomayor

The Necessary and Proper Clause allows Congress to pass laws that further any of its constitutionally granted powers in a broad manner. It also may enact laws that are based on its wide spectrum of incidental powers that derive from the enumerated powers. Laws may be deemed constitutional if they are convenient, useful, or conducive to the beneficial exercise of the enumerated power. The appropriate standard is a rational connection between the means embodied by the law and the ends represented by the source of federal power.

The Clause gives Congress a broad power to create federal crimes beyond those that are provided in the Constitution or the common law, to punish people who violate these crimes, and to protect the security of people who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others. Also, it has been established that Congress may provide for the civil commitment and the delivery of mental health care to federal prisoners. The main difference between this law and those that preceded it, such as Section 4246, lies in its focus on people who are sexually dangerous because of a mental illness. Section 4246 probably already provided sufficient grounds for the civil commitment of many of these prisoners because it provided for the post-sentence detention of federal prisoners who suffer from a mental illness and are dangerous as a result, whether sexually or not. Seen in its legislative context, therefore, Section 4248 is merely a small extension of an existing statutory framework.

The federal government also has the power to protect people in the areas around its prisoners from any harm that they may pose. This law seems to be a logical product of a legislative determination that prisoners who have a mental illness may be unable to stop themselves from engaging in sexually violent conduct, which could harm the public. It is reasonable to believe that the states would not detain many of these individuals, leaving the federal government responsible for that task. The principle of state sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment thus is not invaded because areas that are covered by the Necessary and Proper Clause properly remain within the authority of the federal government. State interests are accommodated rather than curtailed here.

While the federal government does not have a general police power, which is reserved to the states, this law does not transfer that power to the federal government. Congress is not limited to enacting laws under the Necessary and Proper Clause that are only one step removed from a specifically enumerated power. The law is narrowly defined to cover only a very small group of people, all of whom already are in the custody of the federal government. This makes it a narrowly tailored means of furthering the federal government's legitimate interest in administering the prison system in an effective manner.


  • Clarence Thomas (Author)
  • Antonin Scalia

There is no enumerated power in the Constitution that Congress has cited as a basis for the law, nor can any be identified from analyzing the text. The states have a long-standing authority over caring for the mentally ill and protecting members of the community from any dangers that they pose. The plain text of the Necessary and Proper Clause, as well as Supreme Court precedents in this area, do not support the steps of analysis that the majority used. This new interpretation of the Clause may give rise to its use as a basis for a federal police power, which historically has been rejected as unconstitutional. The majority should have been more wary about the possibility that the limited grant of authority under the Clause might be abused by the federal government to act in areas where it is not permitted to interfere.


  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)


  • Samuel A. Alito, Jr. (Author)

Case Commentary

The powers granted by the Necessary and Proper Clause can extend beyond those enumerated in other parts of the Constitution, as long as they are reasonably connected to those powers.

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