2011/02/04

Opinion flawed in Comstock

There is a fundamental flaw in the U.S. v. Comstock opinion. While Congress arguably has authority to conduct competency hearings and detain those found dangerous, on territory over which it has exclusive legislative jurisdiction, there is a jurisdictional problem with acquiring jurisdiction over the prisoner by conducting such a hearing while the subject is still in prison custody for a federal crime, the constitutionality of which is itself in doubt. If the prisoner was taken from state territory into federal custody, he should be returned to state custody before any competency hearing is held, and the determination made by a state court. Only if the prisoner was originally taken from exclusive federal territory would the federal courts have jurisdiction.

But it appears these arguments were not made in this case. GIGO.

This controversy stems from one bad precedent: McCulloch, and what was essentially dictum on the Necessary and Proper Clause. See Unnecessary and Improper.

What is missing from this discussion is close examination of the key phrase in the N&P Clause, “carrying into Execution” the delegated powers. Too many people today take that to mean to get the result that the execution seeks, but a closer reading shows that is not the correct interpretation of the original meaning. The “end” of a delegated power, as discussed by Madison above, is not the intended outcome of Congress in invoking the power. “Carrying into execution” is only making an effort, not getting a result.

Delegated powers are to make certain kinds of efforts. If those efforts are not efficacious to getting a desired result, then the meaning of the N&P Clause is not that additional efforts may be made until the result is achieved. It means only doing things that enable the making of the basic effort authorized by the express delegation. No more.

Moreover, “necessary” and “proper” are two constraints. It is not enough that an enabling effort be necessary. It must also be consistent with the legitimate public purposes of such powers. Delegations are not plenary. All delegations are implicitly constrained to be proper, to be rational and just ways of seeking the purposes expressed in the Preamble.

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