RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
You could call her Chemical Carol. Carol Anne Bond was convicted of trying to poison her husband's mistress with chemicals she stole from her workplace. The federal government prosecuted her for violating American laws enacted to implement a treaty on chemical weapons. Now her case is before the Supreme Court and it's testing some very important questions. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has this report.
NINA TOTENBERG: The facts in the Bond case would make a great "Law and Order" episode. In 2005, Bond was a 34-year-old Philadelphia suburbanite, living with her husband of 14 years. When she found out her best friend, Myrlinda Haynes, was pregnant, she was at first delighted, but when she discovered that her own husband was the father, delight turned to rage.
According to her lawyers, she suffered an emotional breakdown, and became fixated on punishing Haynes for the betrayal. Bond began phoning and writing the mistress, and threatening her. Prosecuted in state court on a minor harassment charge, she was fined $100. But over the next eight months, Bond, who worked at a chemical manufacturing company, put toxic chemicals on the mistress's mail, mailbox, front doorknob, car door, and other surfaces.
Apparently, Bond didn't do a very good job of it because Haynes saw the material and avoided any injury except a burned thumb. Haynes repeatedly complained to local police, who essentially blew her off. Eventually, though, Haynes' mail carrier alerted postal inspectors, who videotaped the betrayed wife repeatedly spreading the chemicals.
The federal government prosecuted Bond for violating U.S. laws enacted to carry out the 1993 Chemical Weapons Treaty - a treaty signed by the United States. She was sentenced to six years in prison.
She appealed, citing the 10th amendment of the Constitution - a Tea Party favorite. The amendment says that the powers not delegated to the United States in the Constitution are reserved to the states. Congress, she said, exceeded its authority by enacting a law to deal with a simple assault - the kind of thing that's reserved for the states to deal with under state criminal law.
Indeed, if Bond had faced state instead of federal charges, she would have been subjected to a penalty of three months to two years in prison. A federal appeals court, however, ducked that issue, ruling that Bond had no legal standing to challenge the constitutionality of the federal law.
When the case reached the Supreme Court, it took another twist. The Obama administration, while staunchly defending the law, agreed with Bond, that she does have the right to challenge it. So the Supreme Court appointed another lawyer to defend the lower court ruling. Today, that lawyer, Steven McAllister, will tell the justices that the 10th amendment delineates what he calls a structural right.
Mr. STEVEN MCALLISTER (Lawyer): A right that, if it belongs to anyone, it belongs to the states, and it is not a claim that she can bring as an individual. A state or a state official would have to bring that claim.
TOTENBERG: Not so, says former Bush administration Solicitor General Paul Clement, who is representing Bond in the Supreme Court.
Mr. PAUL CLEMENT (Lawyer): In a criminal case, it ought to be just a fundamental principle that you have a right to object to the constitutionality of the statute under which you're being prosecuted.
TOTENBERG: Clement goes on to argue that Congress never intended to cover domestic disputes under a law enacted to implement the chemical weapons treaty. Otherwise, as he puts it...
Mr. CLEMENT: If you parked in my parking space, and I took great umbrage at that and decided I was going to throw bleach on your car or use some other household chemical on your car in a malicious way, that seems like it would come within the government's conception of what's a chemical weapon - an unauthorized use of a chemical agent. And I just don't think that when Congress passed this statute to implement the chemical weapon treaty that that's what they had in mind.
TOTENBERG: But the federal government and lawyer McAllister counter that a statute like this one, enacted under the federal government's treaty power, cannot be foiled by states rights claims. McAllister asserts that if Bond is right, and the statute is invalid, then many a terrorist would be immune from federal prosecution on appropriate charges.
MCALLISTER: What about some fella who's sitting at home and makes the chemicals and then, you know, puts them in the mail to the justices of the Supreme Court, a la the anthrax scare?
TOTENBERG: In short, he contends, Congress wrote a broad law precisely because line-drawing is so difficult. A decision in the case is expected by summer.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.