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The United States Constitution is structured according to two principles: the separation of powers (the division of power between the three branches of federal government) and federalism (the division of power between the federal government and the states). This creates a possibility for conflict when the federal government makes laws in areas considered to be within the traditional police powers of the states.
That tension was apparent in the case of United States v. Comstock, 560 U.S. 126 (2010). Congress had passed a law allowing for the civil commitment of mentally ill or sexually violent federal prisoners beyond the end of their prison terms. Congress’s goal was to protect the public from the harm posed by dangerous federal inmates after their release.
The attorney general brought an action pursuant to this law, seeking the civil commitment of Graydon Comstock and four other men scheduled for release from a federal prison. The inmates challenged the law on the ground that Congress had encroached on state police powers when it passed the civil-commitment statute and therefore exceeded its constitutional authority.
In a divided opinion, the United States Supreme Court upheld the law. The Court concluded that the law was a valid exercise of Congress’s power under the Necessary and Proper Clause, which gives Congress authority to pass laws rationally related to the exercise of its enumerated powers.