The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral argument Tuesday morning in a rare case
that combines a fact pattern fitting for tabloid fare with legal questions that go to the core of the heated political debate over federal authority and state power. The case is styled Bond v. United States
and it has a little something for everyone from Nancy Grace to the Federalist Society.
starts with Carol Anne Bond, who tried to poison her best friend, Myrlinda Haynes, after discovering that Haynes had become pregnant from an affair with Bond's husband. Over several months, Bond tried to poison Haynes at least 24 times -- spreading a dangerous mix of chemicals on doorknobs, car-door handles and Haynes' mailbox -- before she was caught. A federal grand jury in Philadelphia then charged Bond with possessing and using a chemical weapon in violation of a federal statute designed to implement the United States' treaty obligations under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.
After unsuccessfully trying to get evidence against her tossed from the case, Bond pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to six years in federal prison. She appealed the case, arguing
that the federal statute under which she was prosecuted is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad and beyond the reach of legitimate congressional power. She should have been indicted under Pennsylvania state statutes, her attorneys argue, and not federal law. And she should also be allowed, as a private citizen, to assert a claim of states' rights under the 10th Amendment
The 3rd. U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected her claims -- including her claim that she had a right as a private citizens to make an argument under the 10th Amendment -- and that's likely what the focus will be Tuesday when the Supreme Court gets involved. Ten years ago, a case like this would have garnered very little attention beyond habitual courtwatchers. Today, however, it's a case with enormous political consequences. Conservatives have been pushing the federal courts to expand their interpretation of the 10th Amendment to curb federal power.
Bond's argument here -- that Congress had no power to enact a federal law that impinges upon state authority -- is in many ways the same argument that has been made by Republican state attorneys general in the pending litigation over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. And the government's substantive defense of the federal law in Bond's case -- that it was duly enacted under the Necessary and Proper Clause
of the Constitution -- is one of the same arguments federal lawyers have been making in defense of the Affordable Care Act. There will thus be more tea-leaf-reading than usual at the court on Tuesday.
The Justice Department, which of course successfully prosecuted her, now sides
with Bond on at least part of her appeal. Federal lawyers told the justices that they, too, believe Bond has "standing" to challenge the constitutionality of the statute that put her into prison. In their brief, they wrote:
She has been prosecuted and sentenced under a federal criminal statute. She contends that Congress lacked the authority to enact that statute and that her conviction is therefore invalid. If a federal court agreed with petitioner, the remedy would be to overturn her conviction. Petitioner therefore has established Article III standing. ... Petitioner is raising her own right to be free from punishment under a statute that is invalid, either facially or as applied to her, because it exceeds Congress's legislative authority. She is not asserting a State's sovereign right to set its own policy and conduct its own affairs.
If the Supreme Court sides with Bond on the standing issue, it will likely send the case back down to the 3rd Circuit for a review of the merits of her argument that Congress went too far in enacting its chemical weapons statute and that prosecutors went too far in enforcing it. And if the justices vote that way, it will likely generate many more private lawsuits seeking to vindicate rights and responsibilities under the 10th Amendment. That's just another reason why a case that reads like made-for-television drama will be so closely watched by political and legal partisans and analysts.
Indeed, underscoring the political nature of the case, Bond now is represented by Paul Clement, who served
as U.S. solicitor general under President George W. Bush. "Domestic disputes resulting from marital infidelities and culminating in a thumb burn are appropriately handled by local law enforcement authorities," Clement wrote in his brief for the court.