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June 2, 2014

Conservative Justices debate treaty powers, local crimes and constitutional connections

The sole criminal justice ruling from the US Supreme Court this morning comes in Bond v. US, No. 12-158 (S. Ct. June 2, 2014) (available here), and conservative con law thinkers are likely to enjoy the lengthy read much more than sentencing fans.  Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts starts this way in Bond:

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.

Notably, all the Justices agree that the federal prosecution and conviction in Bond must be reversed, but Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito write concurrences to explain why they view Bond's treatment as unconstititional not merely statutorily unauthorized. And while I suspect con law scholars will have a grand time debating the virtues and vices of the different perspectives of the different conservative Justices, I fear that criminal law practitioners are unlikely to find much in Bond to use in more traditional federal cases.

June 2, 2014 at 10:41 AM | Permalink

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Comments

can we all say NO SHIT! this should never have gotten this far.

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 3, 2014 2:48:33 PM

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