U.S. v. Bond: Reexamining the Mysterious 10th Amendment

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Is smearing toxic chemicals on a mailbox "garden-variety" crime or a federal treaty violation?

When Carol Anne Bond of Lansdale, PA, put deadly poison on her best friend's mailbox, she probably didn't think she was violating an international treaty against chemical weapons. Nor did she probably imagine she'd end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving that most mysterious of Amendments, the Tenth.

Tuesday's oral argument in United States v. Bond will probably focus on the legally important parts of this case -- quasi-theological concepts like the nature of the Article II Treaty Power, the meaning of the Article I "Necessary and Proper" Clause, and the real meaning of the Tenth Amendment -- which from a journalistic standpoint is a shame, because the unimportant parts of the case are so amazing.

I'm pretty sure Bond wasn't thinking about these issues when she committed her crime -- or thinking about of anything, beyond perhaps proving her suitability to appear on a future episode of a daytime talk show called "Highly Educated Microbiologists Who Do Crazy Stupid Things."

Bond, like Wile E. Coyote, smeared various highly toxic chemicals on surfaces in Haynes's car and around her home, including her mailbox, 24 times.

Bond had found out that her BFF Myrlinda Haynes had given birth to a daughter by Bond's husband, Clifford. She began sending Haynes angry letters featuring defaced pictures of her, and she told her, "I'm going to make your life a living hell" and "dead people are going to visit you." Bond tried to poison Myrlinda Haynes with 10-chloro10H-phenoxarsine she'd stolen from a storage locker at the chemical company where she worked. This stuff is deadly poison; if Haynes' daughter had touched it, it would probably have killed her.

Bond, like Wile E. Coyote, smeared various highly toxic chemicals on surfaces in Haynes's car and around her home, including her mailbox, 24 times. Haynes noticed the contaminants and avoided them, except for one burn on her thumb. She also called local police, who good-heartedly suggested the powder must be cocaine. Then they suggested she keep her car cleaner. Only when she turned to the U.S. Postal Service did someone take her situation seriously. Surveillance cameras posted by USPS caught Bond in the act, and she was arrested.

An unusual case now turns stranger. Federal authorities charged Bond with a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 229, a statute implementing the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. She had possessed and used a chemical weapon, the government argued. She pleaded guilty in federal court and received a six-year sentence, which included an enhancement for using "special skill" in the commission of the crime.

Bond reserved the right to appeal the application of this statute to her. But the appeals court held she had no "standing" to argue that her conviction exceeded the power of the federal government. The government hadn't asked for that ruling, but the court went there on its own. At this point her story becomes entangled with issues of federal power that are a lot more important, though radically more boring, than Carol Bond's crazed campaign for vengeance.

Here's the part that lawyers can love: The issue is not whether Congress, or the federal prosecutors, actually overstepped the Tenth Amendment by applying this federal statute to what her lawyer calls, in a brief to the Court, "garden-variety infractions" like using incredibly toxic, highly regulated chemicals around the home of a mother and her two-year-old infant. It's whether Bond can even raise the issue. Ordinarily a criminal defendant has "standing" to argue any grounds that might prove her conviction was unlawful. Why wouldn't she? "Standing" at its core refers to the idea that a person must be injured by a government action. It's hard to imagine an injury more palpable than being hustled off to a federal gated community for six years.

Bond, in fact, didn't argue that her prosecution violated the Tenth Amendment. She just argued that the chemical weapons statute exceeded the power given to the federal government under the Treaty Power, Article II, § 2, clause 2. On its own, however, the Court of Appeals held that Bond's challenge actually arose under the Tenth Amendment, and that only a state had standing to challenge a federal action as violating the Amendment's provision that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

Both Bond and the U.S. government now agree that the appeals court got the case wrong. Their only difference is on how broadly she should win. The government wants the Supreme Court to allow Tenth Amendment standing only in cases where defendants argue that the alleged federal overreaching exceeds a constitutional grant of power. Bond, and other conservative amici, wants the Court to allow litigants like Bond to challenge statutes on the grounds that they are unfair, not to them, but to their state governments.

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore, and is the author of American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution.

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