January 23, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Reynolds v. United States

On January 23, 2012, the Supreme Court decided Reynolds v. United States, No. 10-6549, holding that the registration requirements of the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act do not apply to pre-Act offenders until the Attorney General validly specifies that they do.

The Act became law on July 27, 2006 and thereafter required "sex offenders" to register their names and addresses with state governments and to keep their registrations current. With respect to offenders convicted before the Act became law, however, the Act provided that "[t]he Attorney General shall have the authority to specify the applicability of the [registration] requirements." The Attorney General first issued an Interim Rule specifying that the registration requirements applied to pre-Act offenders on February 28, 2007.

Petitioner Billy Joe Reynolds is a pre-Act sex offender who was charged with violating the Act by failing to register between September 16 and October 16, 2007. He challenged the Interim Rule as invalid and argued that the registration requirement therefore did not apply to him. The district court held the Rule valid and on that basis rejected his challenged. The court of appeals affirmed, but on the distinct ground that the Act applied to pre-Act sex offenders immediately when it took effect, without the need for any specification by the Attorney General.

The Supreme Court vacated that decision, holding that the Attorney General did indeed need to issue a specification before the Act's requirements applied to pre-Act sex offenders. The text of the Act most naturally suggests this reading, explained the Court. In addition, because of the large number of pre-Act offenders, it made sense for Congress to give the Attorney General flexibility to decide how and when they should be brought into the system. The Court did not address whether the Interim Rule was a valid administrative action and remanded for the court of appeals to consider that issue in the first instance.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined.

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