A U.S. chemical-weapons law doesn’t cover the case of a Pennsylvania woman who tried to poison her husband’s lover, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.
The justices unanimously overturned Carol Anne Bond’s conviction for violating the law, enacted to implement a chemical-weapons treaty. By narrowing the chemical-weapons law, the majority sidestepped a constitutional question that might have limited Congress’s power.
“The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for six justices.
Federal prosecutors charged Bond with violating the 1998 Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act, a law that carries out a 1997 treaty covering the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. The treaty, which supplements an earlier accord that applies in wartime, was designed in part to protect against the use of chemicals by terrorists.
The Obama administration, backed by the chemical industry, defended the prosecution. The administration said Bond’s argument would undermine the president’s ability to reach agreements with other countries and cut against a centuries-old understanding of the Constitution’s treaty power.
The administration said the constitutional framers put the matter of treaties exclusively in the hands of the national government.
Roberts said the court didn’t need to deal with that issue. He instead interpreted the statute as not covering Bond’s conduct.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito said the court should have addressed the constitutional issues and limited federal power. Scalia said Roberts’s opinion improperly rewrote the statute.
“Today the court shirks its job and performs Congress’s,” Scalia wrote.
Bond, a Pennsylvania resident, learned in 2006 that her husband had impregnated her closest friend, Myrlinda Haynes.
Bond then stole a bottle of an arsenic-based substance from her employer, the chemical maker Rohm & Haas Co. She used the Internet to order a second toxic chemical, potassium dichromate, which is commonly used in printing photographs.
Bond, now 43, tried to poison Haynes 24 times over the next several months, spreading the chemicals on her doorknob, car door handles and mailbox. Although Haynes usually avoided touching the substances, on one occasion she suffered a chemical burn on her thumb. Postal inspectors eventually installed surveillance cameras and identified Bond as the perpetrator.
Dow Chemical Co. (DOW) bought Rohm & Haas in 2009.
Bond pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison, while reserving her right to appeal and try to overturn the conviction. Had she been prosecuted under Pennsylvania state law for assault, she would have served no more than two years and one month, according to her lawyers.
A 1920 Supreme Court opinion suggested Congress has broad authority when implementing a treaty. The case centered on a law implementing a treaty to protect birds that migrated between the U.S. and Canada. Writing for the court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said a treaty “may override” the powers normally reserved for the states.
The case is Bond v. United States, 12-158.
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