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Supreme Court: Use Of Toxin In Domestic Assault Case Not Covered By Chemical Weapons Treaty

law-gavel-lights

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Chemical Weapons Convention could not be used to prosecute a Pennsylvania woman who apparently attempted to poison a woman who was having an affair with her husband:

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Congress had not meant to authorize prosecutions of minor crimes under a chemical weapons treaty.

“We are reluctant to ignore the ordinary meaning of ‘chemical weapon,’ ” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for six justices, “when doing so would transform a statute passed to implement the international Convention on Chemical Weapons into one that also makes it a federal offense to poison goldfish.”

The decision was unanimous, but three justices did not join the majority’s reasoning. They said they would have rested the decision on constitutional grounds, saying the chemical weapons law covered minor crimes but that Congress had overstepped its constitutional authority by enacting it.

Chief Justice Roberts said those constitutional concerns figured in the decision, but only as “background assumptions.” Since Congress would not lightly alter the constitutional balance between the federal government and the states, he said, the law should not be read to “convert an astonishing amount” of local criminal conduct into matters for federal law enforcement.

“It would transform the statute from one whose core concerns are acts of war, assassination and terrorism,” he wrote, “into a massive federal anti-poisoning regime that reaches the simplest of assaults.”

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. each issued a concurring opinion.

The chief justice’s opinion, Justice Scalia wrote, “enables the fundamental constitutional principle of limited federal powers to be set aside by the president and Senate’s exercise of the treaty power.”

“We should not have shirked our duty and distorted the law to preserve that assertion; we should have welcomed and eagerly grasped the opportunity — nay, the obligation — to consider and repudiate it,” he added.

The case arose from a lurid domestic dispute that started when a Pennsylvania woman, Carol A. Bond, learned that her husband was the father of her best friend’s child. Ms. Bond, a microbiologist, spread harmful chemicals on the friend’s car, mailbox and doorknob in late 2006 and early 2007, and the friend sustained a minor injury.

Local authorities decided not to pursue the matter. But federal prosecutors charged Ms. Bond with using unconventional weapons in violation of a law based on the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty concerned with terrorists and rogue states.

Lyle Denniston also notes the somewhat conservative nature of the Court’s holding:

Shying away from a major constitutional ruling on Congress’s power to enforce treaties, a divided Supreme Court on Monday pared down the scope of a sixteen-year-old federal law that seeks to punish those who use chemical weapons to wreak violence.  Congress, the six-Justice majority ruled, could not have intended to make it a federal crime — with global implications — for a woman to try to poison her husband’s lover.

Three Justices, however, would have ruled that the 1998 law did apply to that woman’s misconduct, and they would have struck it down as beyond Congress’s constitutional powers.  Since that view did not command a majority, the decision in Bond v. United States left in lingering doubt just how far Congress may go to pass a law to implement a world treaty.

The Court appeared to bring to an end a case that even the Justices acknowledged was a “curious” one:  a federal criminal prosecution, with a potential life sentence, of a Pennsylvania woman because she sought revenge by spreading poison chemicals on surfaces that her husband’s paramour would touch — a door knob, a car door handle, the mailbox.  The other woman did touch one of those surfaces, and got a minor burn on a thumb - dealt with by rinsing her hand with water.

Although the prosecuted woman, Carol Anne Bond, may have violated a number of laws in her state, she actually was charged under state law only for making harassing telephone calls and letters, and state officials refused to accuse her of assault.  She had pleaded guilty to the federal crime of using a “chemical weapon,” on condition that she could later challenge the prosecution. She was convicted under the 1998 law, but Monday’s decision wiped out that result because the law did not even apply to what she did, according to the Court majority.

Aside from its own unusual facts, the case had attracted wide notice because it seemed to pose the ultimate question of just how far Congress could go, in regulating activity entirely inside the U.S., when it was enacting a law to carry out a global obligation that the federal government had assumed under a treaty.  In particular, the case raised a question about the continuing validity of a 1920 precedent, Missouri v. Holland, that had seemed to endorse sweeping congressional power to implement treaty promises.

But Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., writing for himself and five other Justices, invoked the traditional practice of avoiding constitutional issues if not necessary to a decision, and chose to deal only with the question of whether Congress had meant to pass a law that was so nearly limitless that it would reach “a purely local crime” growing out of “romantic jealousy.”

‘The global need to prevent chemical warfare,” the Chief Justice wrote, “does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon.   There is no reason to suppose that Congress — in implementing the Convention on Chemical Weapons — thought otherwise.”

Among other reasons that the majority felt driven to read the 1998 law narrowly was its view that, as applied to Carol Anne Bond’s case, the law meant a deep intrusion into the traditional authority of states to enforce criminal laws within their own jurisdictions.  The decision did not in any way seek to absolve her of criminal behavior, but stressed that this was a matter that state law could handle.

Looking at this in the broadest terms possible, it seems fairly clear to me that the Justices got the result absolutely right in this case. The Chemical Weapons Convention was intended to deal primarily with the use, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons by nation states. It was the latest international treaty in a line that stretches back to those adopted at the end of World War One in response to widespread international disgust at the horrible impact that chemical weapons use had on combatants on both sides in that war. The Federal law in question was passed in order to implement the domestic components of that treaty, as is often the case when dealing with international treaties of this type. There’s simply no evidence to show that either the treaty or the enabling legislation at issue here were ever intended to cover a case in Pennsylvania dealing with a woman who decided to seek some kind of revenge against her best friend when she found out that her husband had fathered that best friend’s child. This is what state criminal was created for, and there’s really no rational reason to make a Federal case out of something that sounds like the plot of a Lifetime movie.

On some level, I suppose, it would have been nice if the Court had gone for the broader ruling that Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito argue for in their majority ruling. However, as Denniston notes, the Court generally avoids striking down a Federal Law as unconstitutional if it can decide the case on some lesser basis. In this situation, the issue of Congressional intent was obviously the best alternative means of addressing the issue before the Court. Additionally, given that there may well be some situations where what seems like a purely domestic crime should be covered by an international treaty, a broad ruling on that issue based on the limited facts of this case would have been inappropriate. On some level, that’s what you call judicial restraint.

Here’s the opinion:

Bond v. United States by Doug Mataconis

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Mu says:

    I find it funny that we can have a “unanimous” court when three justices basically say the rest is utterly wrong.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  2. They were unanimous in the result, which is what matters

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. gVOR08 says:

    …but three justices did not join the majority’s reasoning. They said they would have rested the decision on constitutional grounds, saying the chemical weapons law covered minor crimes but that Congress had overstepped its constitutional authority by enacting it.

    This raises the obvious question – which three fools wanted to go there. Fortunately, the NYT at the link answered, unsurprisingly

    Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. C. Clavin says:

    I missed where they wrote that:

    A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear chemical weapons shall not be infringed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  5. grumpy realist says:

    It’s the first rule of thumb they give you when talking about SCOTUS cases: “If the Justices can decide it on any other grounds than constitutional issues, they will.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Whew. Nice to know the contents of my sink cabinet is no longer considered a “chemical weapons stockpile.” I was really worried about that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. DrDaveT says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Nice to know the contents of my sink cabinet is no longer considered a “chemical weapons stockpile.”

    That depends on who you deploy them against…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0