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Bond v. United States

United States Supreme Court

June 2, 2014

CAROL ANNE BOND, PETITIONER
v.
UNITED STATES

Argued November 5, 2013.

[134 S.Ct. 2082] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

681 F.3d 149, reversed and remanded.

SYLLABUS

To implement the international Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction, Congress enacted the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998. The statute forbids, among other things, any person knowingly to " possess[ ] or use . . . any chemical weapon," 18 U.S.C. § 229(a)(1). A " chemical weapon" is " [a] toxic chemical and its precursors, except where intended for a purpose not prohibited under this chapter." § 229F(1)(A). A " toxic chemical" is " any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. The term includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere." § 229F(8)(A). " [P]urposes not prohibited by this chapter" is defined as " [a]ny peaceful purpose related to an industrial, agricultural, research, medical, or pharmaceutical activity or other activity," and other specific purposes. § 229F(7).

Petitioner Bond sought revenge against Myrlinda Haynes -- with whom her husband had carried on an affair -- by spreading two toxic chemicals on Haynes's car, mailbox, and door knob in hopes that Haynes would develop an uncomfortable rash. On one occasion Haynes suffered a minor chemical burn that she treated by rinsing with water, but Bond's attempted assaults were otherwise entirely unsuccessful. Federal prosecutors charged Bond with violating, among other things, section 229(a). Bond moved to dismiss the chemical weapons charges on the ground that the Act violates the Tenth Amendment. When the District Court denied her motion, she pleaded guilty but reserved the right to appeal. The Third Circuit initially held that Bond lacked standing to raise her Tenth Amendment challenge, but this Court reversed. On remand, the Third Circuit rejected her Tenth Amendment argument and her additional argument that section 229 does not reach her conduct.

Held : Section 229 does not reach Bond's simple assault. Pp. 8-21.

(a) The parties debate whether section 229 is a necessary and proper means of executing the Federal Government's power to make treaties, but " normally [this] Court will not decide a constitutional question if there is some other ground upon which to dispose of the case." Escambia County v. McMillan, 466 U.S. 48, 51, 104 S.Ct. 1577, 80 L.Ed.2d 36 ( per curiam ). Thus, this Court starts with Bond's argument that section 229 does not cover her conduct. Pp. 8-9.

(b) This Court has no need to interpret the scope of the international Chemical Weapons Convention in this case. The treaty specifies that a signatory nation should implement its obligations " in accordance with its constitutional processes." Art. VII(1), 1974 U. N. T. S. 331. Bond was prosecuted under a federal statute, which, unlike the treaty, must be read consistent with the principles of federalism inherent in our constitutional structure. Pp. 10-21.

(1) A fair reading of section 229 must recognize the duty of " federal courts to be certain of Congress's intent before finding that federal law overrides" the " usual constitutional balance of federal and state powers," Gregory v. Ashcroft, 501 U.S. 452, 460, 111 S.Ct. 2395, 115 L.Ed.2d 410. This principle applies to federal laws that punish local criminal activity, which has traditionally been the responsibility of the States. This Court's precedents have referred to basic principles of federalism in the Constitution to resolve ambiguity in federal statutes. See, e.g., United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 92 S.Ct. 515, 30 L.Ed.2d 488; Jones v. United States, 529 U.S. 848, 120 S.Ct. 1904, 146 L.Ed.2d 902. Here, the ambiguity in the statute derives from the improbably broad reach of the key statutory definition, given the term -- " chemical weapon" -- that is being defined, the deeply serious consequences of adopting such a boundless reading, and the lack of any apparent need to do so in light of the context from which the statute arose -- a treaty about chemical warfare and terrorism, not about local assaults. Thus, the Court can reasonably insist on a clear indication that Congress intended to reach purely local crimes before interpreting section 229's expansive language in a way that intrudes on the States' police power. Pp. 10-14.

(2) No such clear indication is found in section 229. An ordinary speaker would not describe Bond's feud-driven act of spreading irritating chemicals as involving a " chemical weapon." And the chemicals at issue here bear little resemblance to those whose prohibition was the object of an international Convention. Where the breadth of a statutory definition creates ambiguity, it is appropriate to look to the ordinary meaning of the term being defined (here, " chemical weapon" ) in settling on a fair reading of the statute. See Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133, 130 S.Ct. 1265, 176 L.Ed.2d 1.

The Government's reading of section 229 would transform a statute concerned with acts of war, assassination, and terrorism into a massive federal anti-poisoning regime that reaches the simplest of assaults. In light of the principle that Congress does not normally intrude upon the States' police power, this Court is reluctant to conclude that Congress meant to punish Bond's crime with a federal prosecution for a chemical weapons attack. In fact, only a handful of prosecutions have been brought under section 229, and most of those involved crimes not traditionally within the States' purview, e.g., terrorist plots.

Pennsylvania's laws are sufficient to prosecute assaults like Bond's, and there is no indication in section 229 that Congress intended to abandon its traditional " reluctan[ce] to define as a federal crime conduct readily denounced as criminal by the States," Bass, supra, at 349, 92 S.Ct. 515, 30 L.Ed.2d 488. That principle goes to the very structure of the Constitution, and " protects the liberty of the individual from arbitrary power." Bond v. United States, 564 U.S. ___, ______, 131 S.Ct. 2355, 2364, 180 L.Ed.2d 269, 280. The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the Federal Government to reach into the kitchen cupboard. Pp. 15-21.

681 F.3d 149, reversed and remanded.

Paul D. Clement argued the cause for petitioner.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. argued the cause for respondent.

Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Thomas, J., joined, and in which Alito, J., joined as to Part I. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Scalia, J., joined, and in which Alito, J., joined as to Parts I, II, and III. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

OPINION

[134 S.Ct. 2083] Roberts, Chief Justice.

The horrors of chemical warfare were vividly captured by John Singer Sargent in his 1919 painting Gassed. The nearly life-sized work depicts two lines of soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, clinging single file to orderlies guiding them to an improvised aid station. There they would receive little treatment and no relief; many suffered for weeks only to have the gas claim their lives. The soldiers were shown staggering through piles of comrades too seriously burned to even join the procession.

The painting reflects the devastation that Sargent witnessed in the aftermath of the Second Battle of Arras during World War I. That battle and others like it led to an overwhelming consensus in the international community that toxic chemicals should never again be used as weapons against human beings. Today that objective is reflected in the international Convention on Chemical Weapons, which has been ratified or acceded to by 190 countries. The United States, pursuant to the Federal Government's constitutionally enumerated power to make treaties, ratified the treaty in 1997. To fulfill the United States' obligations under the Convention, Congress enacted the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998. The Act makes it a federal crime for a person to use or possess any chemical weapon, and it punishes violators with severe penalties. It is a statute that, like the Convention it implements, deals with crimes of deadly seriousness.

The question presented by this case is whether the Implementation Act 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. 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.

I

A

In 1997, the President of the United States, upon the advice and consent of the Senate, ratified the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction. S. Treaty Doc. No. 103-21, 1974 U. N. T. S. 317. The nations that ratified the Convention (State Parties) had bold aspirations for it: " general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control, including the prohibition and elimination of all types of weapons of mass destruction." Convention Preamble, ibid. This purpose traces its origin to World War I, when " [o]ver a million casualties, up to 100,000 of them fatal, are estimated to have been caused by chemicals . . ., a large part following the introduction of mustard gas in 1917." Kenyon, Why We Need a Chemical Weapons Convention and an OPCW, in The Creation of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons 1, 4 (I. Kenyon & D. Feakes eds. 2007) (Kenyon & Feakes). The atrocities of that war led the community of nations to adopt the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibited the use of chemicals as a method of warfare. Id., at 5.

Up to the 1990s, however, chemical weapons remained in use both in and out of wartime, with devastating consequences. [134 S.Ct. 2084] Iraq's use of nerve agents and mustard gas during its war with Iran in the 1980s contributed to international support for a renewed, more effective chemical weapons ban. Id., at 6, 10-11. In 1994 and 1995, long-held fears of the use of chemical weapons by terrorists were realized when Japanese extremists carried out two attacks using sarin gas. Id., at 6. The Convention was conceived as an effort to update the Geneva Protocol's protections and to expand the prohibition on chemical weapons beyond state actors in wartime. Convention Preamble, 1974 U. N. T. S. 318 (the State Parties are " [d]etermined for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons, . . . thereby complementing the obligations assumed under the Geneva Protocol of 1925" ). The Convention aimed to achieve that objective by prohibiting the development, stockpiling, or use of chemical weapons by any State Party or person within a State Party's jurisdiction. Arts. I, II, VII. It also established an elaborate reporting process requiring State Parties to destroy chemical weapons under their control and submit to inspection and monitoring by an international organization based in The Hague, Netherlands. Arts. VIII, IX.

The Convention provides:

" (1) Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never under any circumstances:
" (a) To develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone;
" (b) To use chemical weapons;
" (c) To engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons;

" (d) To assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention." Art. I, id., at 319.

" Chemical Weapons" are defined in relevant part as " [t]oxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes." Art. II(1)(a), ibid . " Toxic Chemical," in turn, is defined as " Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. This includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere." Art. II(2), id., at 320. " Purposes Not Prohibited Under this Convention" means " [i]ndustrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical or other peaceful purposes," Art. II(9)(a), id., at 322, and other specific purposes not at issue here, Arts. II(9)(b)-(d).

Although the Convention is a binding international agreement, it is " not self-executing." W. Krutzsch & R. Trapp, A Commentary on the Chemical Weapons Convention 109 (1994). That is, the Convention creates obligations only for State Parties and " does not by itself give rise to domestically enforceable federal law" absent " implementing legislation passed by Congress." Medellin v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491, 505, n. 2, 128 S.Ct. 1346, 170 L.Ed.2d 190 (2008). It instead provides that " [e]ach State Party shall, in accordance with its constitutional processes, adopt the necessary measures to implement its obligations under this Convention." Art. VII(1), 1974 U. N. T. S. 331. " In particular," each State Party shall " [p]rohibit natural and legal persons anywhere . . . under its jurisdiction . . . from undertaking any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention, including enacting penal legislation with respect to such activity." Art. VII (1)(a), id., at 331-332.

[134 S.Ct. 2085] Congress gave the Convention domestic effect in 1998 when it passed the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act. See 112 Stat. 2681-856. The Act closely tracks the text of the treaty: It forbids any person knowingly " to develop, produce, otherwise acquire, transfer directly or indirectly, receive, stockpile, retain, own, possess, or use, or threaten to use, any chemical weapon." 18 U.S.C. § 229(a)(1). It defines " chemical weapon" in relevant part as " [a] toxic chemical and its precursors, except where intended for a purpose not prohibited under this chapter as long as the type and quantity is consistent with such a purpose." § 229F(1)(A). " Toxic chemical," in turn, is defined in general as " any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. The term includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere." § 229F(8)(A). Finally, " purposes not prohibited by this chapter" is defined as " [a]ny peaceful purpose related to an industrial, agricultural, research, medical, or pharmaceutical activity or other activity," and other specific purposes. § 229F(7). A person who violates section 229 may be subject to severe punishment: imprisonment " for any term of years," or if a victim's death results, the death penalty or imprisonment " for life." § 229A(a).

B

Petitioner Carol Anne Bond is a microbiologist from Lansdale, Pennsylvania. In 2006, Bond's closest friend, Myrlinda Haynes, announced that she was pregnant. When Bond discovered that her husband was the child's father, she sought revenge against Haynes. Bond stole a quantity of 10-chloro-10H-phenoxarsine (an arsenic-based compound) from her employer, a chemical manufacturer. She also ordered a vial of potassium dichromate (a chemical commonly used in printing photographs or cleaning laboratory equipment) on Amazon.com. Both chemicals are toxic to humans and, in high enough doses, potentially lethal. It is undisputed, however, that Bond did not intend to kill Haynes. She instead hoped that Haynes would touch the chemicals and develop an uncomfortable rash.

Between November 2006 and June 2007, Bond went to Haynes's home on at least 24 occasions and spread the chemicals on her car door, mailbox, and door knob. These attempted assaults were almost entirely unsuccessful. The chemicals that Bond used are easy to see, and Haynes was able to avoid them all but once. On that occasion, Haynes suffered a minor chemical burn on her thumb, which she treated by rinsing with water. Haynes repeatedly called the local police to report the suspicious substances, but they took no action. When Haynes found powder on her mailbox, she called the police again, who told her to call the post office. Haynes did so, and postal inspectors placed surveillance cameras around her home. The cameras caught Bond opening Haynes's mailbox, stealing an envelope, and stuffing potassium dichromate inside the muffler of Haynes's car.

Federal prosecutors naturally charged Bond with two counts of mail theft, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1708. More surprising, they also charged her with two counts of possessing and using a chemical weapon, in violation of section 229(a). Bond moved to dismiss the chemical weapon counts on the ground that section 229 exceeded Congress's enumerated powers and invaded powers reserved to the States by the Tenth Amendment. The District Court denied Bond's motion. She then entered a conditional guilty plea that reserved [134 S.Ct. 2086] her right to appeal. The District Court sentenced Bond to six years in federal prison plus five years of supervised release, and ordered her to pay a $2,000 fine and $9,902.79 in restitution.

Bond appealed, raising a Tenth Amendment challenge to her conviction. The Government contended that Bond lacked standing to bring such a challenge. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed. We granted certiorari, the Government confessed error, and we reversed. We held that, in a proper case, an individual may " assert injury from governmental action taken in excess of the authority that federalism defines." Bond v. United States, 564 U.S. __, __, 131 S.Ct. 2355, 2364, 180 L.Ed.2d 269, 279 (2011) ( Bond I ). We " expresse[d] no view on the merits" of Bond's constitutional challenge. Id., at __, 131 S.Ct. 2355, 2366, 180 L.Ed.2d 269, 283.

On remand, Bond renewed her constitutional argument. She also argued that section 229 does not reach her conduct because the statute's exception for the use of chemicals for " peaceful purposes" should be understood in contradistinction to the " warlike" activities that the Convention was primarily designed to prohibit. Bond argued that her conduct, though reprehensible, was not at all " warlike." The Court of Appeals rejected this argument. 681 F.3d 149 (CA3 2012). The court acknowledged that the Government's reading of section 229 would render the statute " striking" in its " breadth" and turn every " kitchen cupboard and cleaning cabinet in America into a potential chemical weapons cache." Id., at 154, n. 7. But the court nevertheless held that Bond's use of " 'highly toxic chemicals with the intent of harming Haynes' can hardly be characterized as 'peaceful' under that word's commonly understood meaning." Id., at 154 (citation omitted).

The Third Circuit also rejected Bond's constitutional challenge to her conviction, holding that section 229 was " necessary and proper to carry the Convention into effect." Id., at 162. The Court of Appeals relied on this Court's opinion in Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416, 40 S.Ct. 382, 64 L.Ed. 641, 18 Ohio L. Rep. 61 (1920), which stated that " [i]f the treaty is valid there can be no dispute about the validity of the statute" that implements it " as a necessary and proper means to execute the powers of the Government," id., at 432, 40 S.Ct. 382, 64 L.Ed. 641.

We again granted certiorari, 568 U.S. __, 131 S.Ct. 455, 178 L.Ed.2d 285 (2013).

II

In our federal system, the National Government possesses only limited powers; the States and the people retain the remainder. The States have broad authority to enact legislation for the public good -- what we have often called a " police power." United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 567, 115 S.Ct. 1624, 131 L.Ed.2d 626 (1995). The Federal Government, by contrast, has no such authority and " can exercise only the powers granted to it," McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316, 4 Wheat. 316, 405, 4 L.Ed. 579 (1819), including the power to make " all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution" the enumerated powers, U.S. Const., Art. I, § 8, cl. 18. For nearly two centuries it has been " clear" that, lacking a police power, " Congress cannot punish felonies generally." Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. 264, 6 Wheat. 264, 428, 5 L.Ed. 257 (1821). A criminal act committed wholly within a State " cannot be made an offence against the United States, unless it have some relation to the execution of a power of Congress, or to some matter within the jurisdiction of the United States." United States v. Fox, 95 U.S. 670, 672, 24 L.Ed. 538 (1878).

[134 S.Ct. 2087] The Government frequently defends federal criminal legislation on the ground that the legislation is authorized pursuant to Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce. In this case, however, the Court of Appeals held that the Government had explicitly disavowed that argument before the District Court. 681 F.3d, at 151, n. 1. As a result, in this Court the parties have devoted significant effort to arguing whether section 229, as applied to Bond's offense, is a necessary and proper means of executing the National Government's power to make treaties. U.S. Const., Art. II, § 2, cl. 2. Bond argues that the lower court's reading of Missouri v. Holland would remove all limits on federal authority, so long as the Federal Government ratifies a treaty first. She insists that to effectively afford the Government a police power whenever it implements a treaty would be contrary to the Framers' careful decision to divide power between the States and the National Government as a means of preserving liberty. To the extent that Holland authorizes such usurpation of traditional state authority, Bond says, it must be either limited or overruled.

The Government replies that this Court has never held that a statute implementing a valid treaty exceeds Congress's enumerated powers. To do so here, the Government says, would contravene another deliberate choice of the Framers: to avoid placing subject matter limitations on the National Government's power to make treaties. And it might also undermine confidence in the United States as an international treaty partner.

Notwithstanding this debate, it is " a well-established principle governing the prudent exercise of this Court's jurisdiction that normally the Court will not decide a constitutional question if there is some other ground upon which to dispose of the case." Escambia County v. McMillan, 466 U.S. 48, 51, 104 S.Ct. 1577, 80 L.Ed.2d 36 (1984) ( per curiam ); see also Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 347, 56 S.Ct. 466, 80 L.Ed. 688 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring). Bond argues that section 229 does not cover her conduct. So we consider that argument first.

III

Section 229 exists to implement the Convention, so we begin with that international agreement. As explained, the Convention's drafters intended for it to be a comprehensive ban on chemical weapons. But even with its broadly worded definitions, we have doubts that a treaty about chemical weapons has anything to do with Bond's conduct. The Convention, a product of years of worldwide study, analysis, and multinational negotiation, arose in response to war crimes and acts of terrorism. See Kenyon & Feakes 6. There is ...


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