U.S. Supreme Court

Romantic-rival injury attempt isn't covered by federal chemical-weapons law, SCOTUS says

A federal law enacted to implement a chemical-weapons treaty doesn’t cover the acts of a woman who used chemicals in an attempt to injure a romantic rival, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

Carol Anne Bond had entered a conditional guilty plea to a violation of the law, which carries hefty penalties for the use and possession of chemical weapons. Bond had contended that Congress didn’t have the authority to pass the chemical-weapons law because it intruded on state powers. The court majority sidestepped that question, however, ruling that the law didn’t cover Bond’s “purely local” crime.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the opinion (PDF) for the court, which was joined in full by five justices. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote opinions concurring in the judgment.

At issue, Roberts wrote, is whether the law “reaches a purely local crime: an amateur attempt by a jilted wife to injure her husband’s lover, which ended up causing only a minor thumb burn readily treated by rinsing with water. Because our constitutional structure leaves local criminal activity primarily to the states, we have generally declined to read federal law as intruding on that responsibility, unless Congress has clearly indicated that the law should have such reach. The Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act contains no such clear indication, and we accordingly conclude that it does not cover the unremarkable local offense at issue here.”

Bond, a microbiologist from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, stole chemicals from her employer and spread them on the mailbox, car door and door knob of the romantic rival, a one-time friend who had an affair with Bond’s husband and became pregnant. Bond’s intent was for the rival to touch the chemicals “and develop an uncomfortable rash,” Roberts said. She was discovered as a result of surveillance cameras placed by postal inspectors at the rival’s home.

The government had advocated a reading of the law that would categorize as banned chemical weapons “everything from the detergent under the kitchen sink to the stain remover in the laundry room,” Roberts wrote. Under the government’s interpretation, Roberts said, “Any parent would be guilty of a serious federal offense—possession of a chemical weapon—when, exasperated by the children’s repeated failure to clean the goldfish tank, he considers poisoning the fish with a few drops of vinegar.”

“In sum,” Roberts wrote, “the global need to prevent chemical warfare 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. “

The concurring justices, in three separate opinions, said the law did reach Bond’s conduct, but it was unconstitutional under Congress’ treaty power. In his concurrence, Scalia said the majority “reasons backwards, holding that, if the statute has what the court considers a disruptive effect on the ‘federal-state balance’ of criminal jurisdiction, … that effect causes the text, even if clear on its face, to be ambiguous.”

“Imagine what future courts can do with that judge-empowering principle,” Scalia wrote. “Whatever has improbably broad, deeply serious, and apparently unnecessary consequences … is ambiguous!”

The case is Bond v. United States.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Love triangle spurs SCOTUS arguments on reaches of congressional power”

ABAJournal.com: “Romantic-rival poisoning case returns to SCOTUS; Congress’ treaty powers at issue”

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