WASHINGTON — The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 is guiding the destruction of Syria's chemical stockpile, for which a watchdog group last month won the Nobel Peace Prize.
That's not all the treaty has achieved, however. It also helped ambitious postal inspectors nab Carol Anne Bond of Lansdale, Pa., in 2007 for spreading a chemical compound on the doorknob, mailbox and car of her husband's pregnant lover.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether the federal government went a wee bit too far by throwing the book — in this case, the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998 — at a woman scorned.
The case of Bond v. United States has it all: A lurid affair. An act of vengeance. Weapons akin to those favored by tyrants and terrorists. Video surveillance by an ever-watchful government.
And if federal agents' actions appear to be for the birds, there's even a connection to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
All these elements coalesce in a case that raises a paramount issue for the justices to resolve: Can Congress exceed its enumerated powers and supersede states' authority over local crimes when it's acting on an international treaty?
Yes, say the Obama administration and an array of diplomats and arms control negotiators, who claim individuals such as Bond can and should be prosecuted along with more dangerous terrorists. "In the more than two centuries of American history, this court has never invalidated Congress' implementation of a treaty on federalism grounds," Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argues in his brief.
No, say Bond's attorneys and libertarian groups opposed to what they see as government overreach. "This is a potential end-run against limited congressional power," says Nicholas Rosenkranz, a Georgetown University law professor who filed a brief on behalf of the Cato Institute. "This statute probably wasn't written with Mrs. Bond's facts in mind."
Bond, now 42, was "neither sophisticated nor successful" in her conduct, says the brief filed by former solicitor general Paul Clement, who will argue her case in court. The combination of potassium dichromate purchased from Amazon.com and 10-chloro-10-H-phenoxarsine taken from Bond's employer can be lethal, but when placed on doorknobs and mailboxes it turns bright orange and is simple to avoid.
That's what Bond's best friend and fellow Barbados immigrant, Myrlinda Haynes, did after her affair with Bond's husband led to her pregnancy. She repeatedly saw the substance on her car door handle and tried to clean it off. But after sustaining a minor burn on her thumb, she called police; they suspected cocaine and told Haynes to take her car to the car wash. When the same compound appeared on her mailbox, she called the post office, putting the case before federal authorities.
"One of the lessons of this case is, don't mess with anybody's mailbox," Clement quips. "The postal inspectors have almost nothing to do." Their elaborate 24-hour surveillance led to Bond's arrest, conviction, six-year prison sentence (state law carried a 25-month maximum) and two lower court losses. The Supreme Court's verdict, expected in the spring, represents her last chance.
In defending their prosecution, federal officials cite a 1920 precedent, Missouri v. Holland, in which the Supreme Court ruled Congress could supersede state jurisdiction when implementing a treaty — in that case, a pact with Canada on the treatment of migratory birds.
Unless that doctrine is overturned, Rosenkranz says, the federal government could add to its already vast powers by entering into international treaties on issues ranging from gun control to health care.
The justices could seek a more narrow ruling against the government without striking down the 93-year-old doctrine, perhaps by deciding that Bond's actions simply are not covered.
That would avoid one branch of government limiting the power of another, while also circumventing a problem foreseen by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals when it ruled against Bond in 2009: turning "each kitchen cupboard and cleaning cabinet in America into a potential chemical weapons cache."