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January 23, 2012

SCOTUS sorts through applicability of SORNA in Reynolds

Though SCOTUS buzz this morning will surely be dominated by the GPS tracking Fourth Amendment case handed down this morning (the Jones case, in which the defendant sort of prevails via a number of intriguing (yet relatively brief) opinions), the Supreme Court also provided a little extra fun for sentencing fans still trying to make sense of the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). Specifically, via a 7-2 ruling in Reynolds v. US (available here), the Justices provide an explanation about when and to whom SORNA applies to folks who committed sex offense prior to the act. Here is a snippet from the majority opinion by Justice Breyer, which explains the issue and the essence of the ruling:

The federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (Act), 120 Stat. 590, 42 U. S. C. §16901 et seq. (2006 ed. and Supp. III), requires those convicted of certain sex crimes to provide state governments with (and to update) information, such as names and current addresses, for inclusion on state and federal sex offender registries. §§16912(a), 16913–16914, 16919(a) (2006 ed.). The Act makes it a crime for a person who is “required to register” under the Act and who “travels in interstate or foreign commerce” knowingly to “fai[l] to register or update a reg- istration . . . .” 18 U. S. C. §2250(a). The question before us concerns the date on which this federal registra- tion requirement took effect with respect to sex offenders convicted before the Act became law....

The question before us is whether the Act requires pre-Act offenders to register before the Attorney General validly specifies that the Act’s registration provisions ap- ply to them. We believe that it does not.   For one thing, a natural reading of the textual language supports our conclusion....

Pre-Act offenders, aware of such complexities, lacunae, and difficulties [in figuring out to whom and how SORNA applies], might, on their own, reach different conclusions about whether, or how, the new registration requirements applied to them. A ruling from the Attorney General, however, could diminish or eliminate those uncertainties, thereby helping to eliminate the very kind of vagueness and uncertainty that criminal law must seek to avoid. Cf., e.g., United States v. Lanier, 520 U. S. 259, 266 (1997) (noting that “the canon of strict construction of criminal statutes, or rule of lenity, ensures fair warning by so resolving ambiguity in a criminal statute as to apply it only to conduct clearly covered”).

The dissent authored by Justice Scalia and joined by Justice Ginsburg begins this way and has makes a point about constitutional authority in developing its argument that struck me as blog-worthy:

In my view, the registration requirements of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (Act), 120 Stat. 590, 42 U. S. C. §16901 et seq. (2006 ed. and Supp. III), apply of their own force, without action by the Attorney General. The Act’s statement that “[t]he Attorney General shall have the authority to specify the applicability of the [registration] requirements” to pre-Act sex offenders, §16913(d), is best understood as conferring on the Attorney General an authority to make exceptions to the otherwise applicable registration requirement....

Indeed, it is not entirely clear to me that Congress can constitutionally leave it to the Attorney General to decide—with no statutory standard whatever governing his discretion—whether a criminal statute will or will not apply to certain individuals. That seems to me sailing close to the wind with regard to the principle that legislative powers are nondelegable....

January 23, 2012 at 10:31 AM | Permalink


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Alito rules for the defendant again in a divided case! He's my new hero!

Posted by: Sam He Am | Jan 24, 2012 7:28:04 PM

LOL bet he misses a few cases now. gonna take a while for his throat to heal...i know that had to HURT!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 25, 2012 4:22:49 PM

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