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At the U.S. Supreme Court today, the subject of debate was the reach of the Constitution's treaty power. And this was not your garden variety weapons treaty talk. The justices questions covered subjects from sarin gas to Halloween trick or treating.
NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports on the case of a jilted wife and chemical weapons.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 2005, when Carol Anne Bond learned that her best friend was pregnant and that the father of the baby was her own husband. Soon, the spurned wife was spreading potentially lethal chemicals on the other woman's mailbox and mail, front door, car, and other surfaces.
The chemicals, however, were orange and thus easily spotted. The mistress sustained only a burn on her thumb. That may be why when she went to the local police, they didn't take the matter seriously. The federal government, however, did. Federal authorities charged Bond with violating the 1993 Chemical Weapons Treaty and she was sentenced to six years in prison.
Bond's lawyer, Paul Clement, maintains that the legislation enacted to enforce the treaty unconstitutionally usurps the state's police powers and goes beyond the meaning of the treaty.
PAUL CLEMENT: Nation-states conduct war, you know, they don't poison their husband's lover.
TOTENBERG: But on the steps of the Supreme Court today, former State Department legal advisor John Bellinger argued that the prosecution had not been ridiculous.
JOHN BELLINGER: If the victim had actually died or a postal worker who had been gathering the mail had actually died or a number of people had been killed, everybody would say this is an appropriate prosecution.
TOTENBERG: Inside the court chamber today, some of the court's liberals had skeptical questions for Bond's lawyer. Justice Ginsburg noted that lawyer Clement had conceded that the treaty itself is valid. And she observed the legislation to enforce it largely copies the treaty language.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: It would be deeply ironic if after all the criticism we have made of Syria, this court were to say that the implementing legislation of the Chemical Weapons Treaty was unconstitutional. But Clement insisted that the states are fully capable of implementing the treaty.
Justice Ginsburg: There's an irony in what you just said, because the victim, many times went to the state police and said, please, help me. And they turned her away a dozen times.
Justice Kagan: Let's say its the same treaty but it only applies to sarin gas. And some chemist manufactures it and puts it in the ducts of a neighbor's home and kills everyone. Lawyer Clement replied that Congress could ban sarin entirely, whereas in this case, Bond used chemicals that are perfectly lawful.
Justice Kagan: So you're imagining a world in which judges day-to-day, try to get inside the head of treaty-makers to determine where the national interest lies. It seems to me a completely indeterminate test and one that would have judges take the place of treaty-makers.
But if Clement took a pounding from some justices, Donald Verrilli, the government's chief advocate, faced an even bigger and more vociferous firing squad. Chief Justice Roberts, who'd been silent during Clement's argument, now began rapid fire questions, asking why, under the government's reasoning, Congress couldn't pass a statute usurping all the states' police powers. Verrilli said it seems unimaginable that a president would agree to such a treaty, that two-thirds of the Senate would ratify it and that both houses of Congress would pass laws implementing such a broad power.
Justice Kennedy, caustically: It also seems unimaginable that you would bring this prosecution.
The prosecution, of course, was brought initially in the George W. Bush administration. But Verrilli, nonetheless eagerly defended it. There might be an outer bound in some future case he said, but this case is nowhere close to it. The history of the treaty power, he said, was, in fact, not to rely on the states to enforce treaty provisions but to give that power to the federal government.
Justice Breyer, clearly irritated: You're telling me that if I write the opinion that I think the law requires, I somehow am hurting the national security interests of the United States?
Justice Alito chimed in to say that ordinary people would be flabbergasted to learn of Bond's prosecution for deployment of chemical weapons. This statute is so broad, he said, that it even covers injury to animals. Would it shock you if I told you that my wife and I distributed toxic chemicals a few days ago to a large number of children? After all, observed Alito, chocolate is poison to dogs.
As the hypotheticals got sillier and sillier, and the gaiety more and more pronounced, Verrilli interjected: this is a serious business, with all due respect. One of the very things we are trying to sort out in Syria right now under the chemical weapons convention is where the line is between peaceful uses and warlike uses.
Verrilli concluded that having the courts involved in defining what the terms of a treaty mean would undermine the ability of our negotiators to make treaties in the future.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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