The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)


Did the Rehnquist Court address constitutional issues related to sexual predators?

Yes, the Rehnquist Court addressed many legal issues related to sexual predators. In its 1994 decision Kansas v. Hendricks, the Court upheld the constitutionality of Kansas’ Sexually Violent Predator Act. This law allowed the state to initiate civil commitment proceedings to those sexual predators who suffer from a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes them likely to commit other acts of sexual violence. Under this Kansas law, the state sought to commit offender Leroy Hendricks, a career child abuser who admitted he could not control his urges. Hendricks, who had nearly completed a long sentence for sexually offending two youths, contended the law violated his due-process rights and amounted to double jeopardy by punishing him for the same act twice. The Court rejected those constitutional challenges. It reasoned that the civil commitment proceeding did not violate double jeopardy because the statute was a civil, not criminal, law with the primary goal of punishment. “If detention for the purpose of protecting the community from harm necessarily constituted punishment, then all involuntary civil commitments would have to be considered punishment,” the Court wrote. “But we have never so held.” The Court also noted that Hendricks was placed under the supervision of the state Department of Health and Social and Rehabilitative Services, which was segregated from the general prison population and not manned by employees of the Department of Correction.

Eight years later, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the very same Kansas law in Crane v. Kansas (2002). This case required the Court to address whether a sexual predator could be civilly confined under the state sexual predator law if the state did not prove that the sexual offender had some difficulty controlling his behavior. The Court ruled that the Constitution required the state of Kansas to prove that the sexual offender has “serious difficulty” controlling his behavior before seeking civil commitment proceedings under the sexual predator law. Otherwise, according to the court, the civil law could be used as “a mechanism for retribution or general deterrence.” In another case, Seling v. Young (2001), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Washington’s Community Protection Act of 1990, another law that provided for the civil confinement of certain sexual predators.

The Court also addressed another type of law, called Megan’s Laws, that inform the public where sex offenders live in the community. The Court upheld Alaska’s Sex Offender Registration Act in its 2003 decision Smith v. Doe. The Alaska law requires former sex offenders to register with the state. The law provides notification to the community about these sex offenders through a publicly accessible database on the Internet. Two former sex offenders, who already served their prison terms before the law was passed, challenged the law on ex post facto and due process grounds.

These former offenders argued the law violated the Ex Post Facto Clause because it imposed additional punishment on them for conduct that occurred before the passage of the law. The state countered that the law did not violate the clause because it was not intended to punish offenders, but to protect and inform the public. The Court sided with the state, finding that the law fundamentally was civil, rather than criminal.

The Court refused to rule in favor of the former offenders even though the information was disseminated on the Internet. “It must be acknowledged that notice of a criminal conviction subjects the offender to public shame, the humiliation increasing in proportion to the extent of the publicity,” the Court wrote. “And the geographic reach of the Internet is greater than anything which could have been designed in colonial times. These facts do not render Internet notification punitive. The purpose and the principal effect of notification are to inform the public for its own safety, not to humiliate the offender.”

The Court also upheld Connecticut’s Megan’s Law from constitutional attack in its 2003 decision Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. Doe. The Court determined that Connecticut had the right to disseminate information on all sex offenders to the public even if particular sex offenders posed no threat to the community.

U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the high court’s first woman justice. Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

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