Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Supreme Court avoids redefining treaty powers in poisoning case

June 2, 2014 by Scott Bomboy


On Monday morning, the Supreme Court said that a woman convicted of trying to poison her best friend should have been tried under a state law, and not an international treaty about chemical weapons.

The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the main opinion in Bond v. the United States, which centered on a suburban Philadelphia woman who found out her husband got her best friend pregnant – and took matters into her own hands.

The decision was unanimous, but it also included separate concurring opinions from Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

The Court’s narrow ruling avoided a much broader one that might have redefined some constitutional history. A sweeping decision had the potential to alter the landmark 1920 Supreme Court decision: Missouri v. Holland. The Holland decision gave Congress the power to pass laws to carry out the U.S. government’s obligations under international treaties.

“This Court has no need to interpret the scope of the international Chemical Weapons Convention in this case,” Roberts said.

“The question presented by this case is whether the Implementation Act [from Congress] also 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,” Roberts said. “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.”

Roberts said the Court saw “no such clear indication, and we accordingly conclude that it does not cover the unremarkable local offense at issue here.”

“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,” he said.

Link: Read the decision

How the Bond case got to the Supreme Court, twice, was a saga in itself. Carol Anne Bond of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, according to court documents, discovered in 2006 that her best friend was pregnant and Bond’s husband was the father of the child. Bond herself was unable to have children.

An upset Bond worked at a local chemical company, and she ordered more chemicals from, created an irritating bright orange chemical cocktail, and spread it on objects at her friend’s house.

Local authorities didn’t pursue the matter at first, but when the woman complained to the Postal Service, after her mailbox was tainted with the substance, the Service used a camera to determine Bond was the culprit. Bond was arrested the surveillance video confirmed her friend's suspicions.

Bond was charged by the feds under the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998, which is linked to an international treaty, and not under prevailing local laws. Bond’s lawyers argued the decision violated the 10th amendment and Bond should have faced local charges in the state of Pennsylvania, which were much less harsh than the federal charges.

Bond’s lawyers lost that challenge, she went to trial, and she was convicted in 2007.  Bond was sentenced to six years in prison, plus five years of supervised release.

The Bond case first appeared before the Supreme Court in 2011, when the Court agreed with Bond’s defense that she could contest the lower court’s decision as an individual under the 10th Amendment.

However, when the case was returned to a lower court, Bond lost and the judges cited the Holland decision as a factor. On appeal, the case returned to the Supreme Court for a second time.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

Recent Stories On Constitution Daily

Podcast: Times reporter faces jail for protecting source

Supreme Court tracker: Major cases expected this month

A future American president’s deadly duel

Use of word ‘God’ survives two recent court challenges

Sign up for our email newsletter