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Congress' Delegation of Authority to Determine SORNA's Applicability to Pre-Act Sex Offenders Did Not Violate the Nondelegation Doctrine

In United States v. Cooper, No. 13-2324, the Third Circuit considered whether Congress' decision to delegate authority to determine the applicability of federal registration requirements to sex offenders convicted before the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act's ("SORNA") enactment was constitutional.  SORNA makes it a federal crime for any person who is required to register, and who travels in interstate or foreign commerce, to knowingly fail to register or to update his or her registration. 18 U.S.C. § 2250(a). The statute defines sex offenders to include persons convicted of sex offenses prior to SORNA’s enactment. 42 U.S.C. § 16911(1). However, Congress delegated to the Attorney General the authority to determine whether SORNA’s registration requirements would apply to pre-SORNA sex offenders. The Attorney General has since determined that SORNA’s registration requirements do in fact apply to offenders convicted of sex offenses prior to SORNA’s enactment. 28 C.F.R. § 72.3.

The Court determined that Congress’ delegation of this responsibility to the Attorney General was constitutional under the "nondelegation doctrine," which is rooted in the principle of separation of powers. The Court declined to apply a heightened standard here simply because Congress delegated the authority to create criminal liability. Instead, the Third Circuit analyzed Congress’ delegation of authority under the more common "intelligible principle" test. Under the intelligible principle test, a delegation of authority is constitutional so long as Congress "clearly delineates the general policy, the public agency which is to apply it, and the boundaries of this delegated authority." See Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 372-73 (1989). The Court ultimately concluded that since Congress laid out the general policy underlying the SORNA, the public agency to apply the policy, and the boundaries of the delegated authority, its delegation to the Attorney General did not violate the nondelegation doctrine.
 

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