Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”     Frederick Bastiat

November 9, 2009

Will The Supreme Court Finally Start Reining In The Necessary And Proper Clause ?

by Doug Mataconis

One of the most pernicious clauses of the Constitution that has, through creative interpretation led to an expansion of the power of the Federal Government far beyond where it was intended is the Necessary and Proper Clause, which sits at the end of Article I, Section 8 and states as follows:

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

When James Madison wrote about the clause in Federalist No. 44, it was clear that the Founders viewed the clause as merely granting Congress the authority it needed to carry out the powers set forth in remainder of Section 8:

The remaining particulars of this clause fall within reasonings which are either so obvious, or have been so fully developed, that they may be passed over without remark. The SIXTH and last class consists of the several powers and provisions by which efficacy is given to all the rest. 1. Of these the first is, the “power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof. “Few parts of the Constitution have been assailed with more intemperance than this; yet on a fair investigation of it, no part can appear more completely invulnerable. Without the SUBSTANCE of this power, the whole Constitution would be a dead letter.\

(…)

If it be asked what is to be the consequence, in case the Congress shall misconstrue this part of the Constitution, and exercise powers not warranted by its true meaning, I answer, the same as if they should misconstrue or enlarge any other power vested in them; as if the general power had been reduced to particulars, and any one of these were to be violated; the same, in short, as if the State legislatures should violate the irrespective constitutional authorities. In the first instance, the success of the usurpation will depend on the executive and judiciary departments, which are to expound and give effect to the legislative acts; and in the last resort a remedy must be obtained from the people who can, by the election of more faithful representatives, annul the acts of the usurpers.

The reality of just how flexible the clause was, though, became apparent only thirty-one years later when the Supreme Court handed down it’s decision in McCullouch v. Maryland:

McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819), was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States. The state of Maryland had attempted to impede operation of a branch of the Second Bank of the United States by imposing a tax on all notes of banks not chartered in Maryland. Though the law, by its language, was generally applicable, the U.S. Bank was the only out-of-state bank then existing in Maryland, and the law is generally recognized as having specifically targeted the U.S. Bank. The Court invoked the Necessary and Proper Clause in the Constitution, which allowed the Federal government to pass laws not expressly provided for in the Constitution’s list of express powers as long as those laws are in useful furtherance of the express powers.

This fundamental case established the following two principles:

  1. The Constitution grants to Congress implied powers for implementing the Constitution’s express powers, in order to create a functional national government.
  2. State action may not impede valid constitutional exercises of power by the Federal government.

The opinion was written by Chief Justice John Marshall.

It was the first example of a Constitutional clause being used to read into the Constitution increased powers for Congress beyond those set forth in the text of the document, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Now, it appears that the Supreme Court may have the opportunity to rein in the damage the McCulloch did:

In 2006, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. One provision of the law authorizes the federal government to civilly commit anyone in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons whom the attorney general certifies to be “sexually dangerous.” The effect of such an action is to continue the certified person’s confinement after the expiration of his prison term, without proof of a new criminal violation.

Six days before the scheduled release of Graydon Comstock — who had been sentenced to 37 months in jail for receiving child pornography — the attorney general certified Comstock as sexually dangerous. Three years later, Comstock thus remains confined in a medium security prison, as do more than 60 other similarly situated men in the Eastern District of North Carolina alone.

Comstock and several others challenged their confinements as going beyond Congress’s constitutional authority and won in both the district and appellate courts. The United States successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case.

Cato, joined by Georgetown law professor (and Cato senior fellow) Randy Barnett, filed a brief opposing the government. We argue that the use of federal power here is unconstitutional because it is not tied to any of Congress’s limited and enumerated powers. The government’s reliance on the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I, Section 8, is misplaced because that clause grants no independent power but merely “carries into execution” the powers enumerated elsewhere in that section. The commitment of prisoners after their terms simply is not one of the enumerated powers.

While the government justifies its actions by invoking its implied power “to establish a federal penal system” — itself a necessary and proper auxiliary to certain enumerated powers — civil commitment is unrelated to creating or maintaining a penal system (let alone any enumerated power). Nor can the law at issue fall under the Commerce Clause, because civil commitment involves non-economic intrastate activity.

Here’ s hoping that the Court takes this one, admittedly small, step toward reining in an out-of-control Federal Government.


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