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Sex offenders can stay locked up after sentences end

Supreme Court June 23, 1997
Web posted at: 6:50 p.m. EDT (2250 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that states may keep some sexual predators locked up even after they have served their prison sentences.

In a 5-4 ruling written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court said that keeping an offender locked up in a mental institution, even without a formal finding of mental illness, did not violate constitutional protections of due process or constitute a double punishment for the same crime.

"The court has recognized that an individual's constitutionally protected interest in avoiding physical restraint may be overridden even in the civil context," Thomas wrote.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy agreed with Thomas in the decision. Justices Stephen G. Breyer, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.


The ruling was a defeat for Leroy Hendricks, who has been convicted of child molestation in Kansas five times and has said that only his death would prevent him from committing new crimes.

Kansas law allows the state to confine sexually violent offenders to a mental hospital after they have served a criminal sentence -- if they are considered likely to engage in further predatory behavior because of a mental abnormality or personality disorder. The law falls short of a formal finding of mental illness.

"Hendricks' diagnosis as a pedophile, which qualifies as a 'mental abnormality' under the act, thus plainly suffices for due process purposes," Thomas wrote.

The court also, without comment, refused to hear a White House appeal of a lower court ruling giving Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr access to notes taken during meetings between first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and White House attorneys. (full story)

In other action Monday, the court:

  • Ruled that public school teachers may enter private church-run schools to offer remedial help to students. The 5-4 ruling reversed the court's own 1985 ruling barring public school teachers from teaching at any religiously affiliated school. Rehnquist, Thomas, O'Connor, Scalia and Kennedy voted with the majority, and Ginsburg, Souter, Breyer and Stevens dissented.

  • Ruled that a 1996 law limiting most state inmates' access to federal courts does not apply retroactively to those who had appeals pending at the time the law went into effect. Justices Souter, Stevens, O'Connor, Ginsburg and Breyer were the majority in the 5-4 ruling.

  • Upheld a lower court ruling that Shreveport, Louisiana, must get federal approval for judicial voting boundaries before certifying the election results.

  • Ruled unanimously that railroad employees who were exposed to asbestos, a cancer-causing substance, cannot sue their employers for emotional distress unless the exposure made them ill.

  • Ruled that guards at privately run prisons are not entitled to immunity against lawsuits, as are guards at state-run prisons. Justices Breyer, Stevens, O'Connor, Souter and Ginsburg were the majority in the 5-4 ruling.

  • Ruled 5-4 that the Coeur d'Alene tribe could not seek control of a lake and its tributaries by suing Idaho officials in federal court. The 11th Amendment, the justices said, protected states from being sued unwillingly in federal court. The underlying dispute over ownership of Lake Coeur d'Alene has yet to be decided. Kennedy, Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia and Thomas voted against the American Indian tribe.

  • Rejected without comment a lawsuit filed by a group of U.S. investors challenging last year's restructuring of insurer Lloyd's of London.

  • Rejected without comment the appeal of a man who sued a restaurant, its chef, a police officer and several town officials in a dispute over a steak he ordered at the restaurant. The lower court had tossed the lawsuit, calling it "goofy." David Schlessinger filed the suit after he got into an argument with restaurant officials over how the steak was prepared, then was forced by police to pay for the uneaten steak and leave.

  • Agreed to settle an Alaska case involving 1.8 million acres of land owned by Alaska natives. A lower court has ruled the land can be deemed "Indian country," giving tribes broad regulatory and tax powers.

  • Agreed to hear an Oregon case that will clarify what evidence of danger must exist before police officers with search warrants can enter a home without knocking.

Correspondent Anthony Collings contributed to this report.  

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