WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices signaled Tuesday that they are likely to uphold a national law that permits the civil commitment of "sexually dangerous" people after they complete their federal prison terms.
Hearing arguments in Washington, most of the nine justices suggested they viewed Congress as having the constitutional power to enact the law. A federal appeals court said the 2006 measure, under which more than 100 people have been held, exceeded Congress' authority.
The case tests the power of the federal government to play a role in preventing sex crimes, traditionally a state function. Although the high court has reined in the federal government in other contexts over the past 15 years, Tuesday's hour-long hearing revealed more concern about ensuring public safety than interest in protecting states' rights.
"You are talking about endangering the health and safety of people," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. "The government has some responsibility, doesn't it?"
Justice Antonin Scalia alone voiced criticism of the statute, repeatedly saying the federal government was intruding on state powers. He said federal prison officials could accomplish the same goal by notifying state authorities when a dangerous person is about to be released and asking them to begin commitment proceedings.
The civil commitment law is being challenged by five men held under the measure. Four of them have completed prison sentences for sex crimes, while the fifth was held incompetent to stand trial on charges of sexually abusing a child. They are being held in a treatment facility in Butner, N.C.