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Chemical weapon or just poison? Supreme Court takes case

A pedestrian walks past the US Supreme Court building in Washington, December 8, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A pedestrian walks past the US Supreme Court building in Washington, December 8, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Jonathan Stempel and Terry Baynes

(Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a new appeal by a woman convicted under a federal law intended to combat chemical weapons in a case where she admitted trying to poison a former friend who had an affair with her husband.

At the center of the case is a 1998 U.S. law banning the use of chemical weapons other than for a "peaceful purpose."

That law grew out of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, an international agreement designed to keep rogue countries and terrorists from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

Carol Anne Bond, a trained microbiologist who once worked at the chemical company Rohm and Haas Co, admitted to trying to poison her former best friend Myrlinda Haynes after learning that Haynes, a single mother, became pregnant by Bond's husband.

The toxic chemicals were taken from Rohm & Haas, and lethal compounds were sprinkled on Haynes' mailbox, car door handles and house doorknob on several occasions between November 2006 and June 2007.

Such cases are normally handled by local prosecutors under traditional criminal laws, but Bond was prosecuted under the federal chemical weapons law.

The case could give the court a chance to revisit a 1920 precedent written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that gave Congress broad authority to adopt laws implementing treaties.

It also presents an unusual clash between the desire to enforce international treaty norms, including provisions designed to thwart terrorism, and the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which limits federal power.

Bond, a Pennsylvania resident, was sentenced to six years in prison after entering a guilty plea that gave her a right to appeal the use of that law in her case. Bond said its use invaded the powers reserved to U.S. states under the 10th Amendment.

In 2011, the Supreme Court said Bond had standing to fight her conviction, without deciding the merits, and sent the case to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

CACHE IN EACH CUPBOARD

In May, the 3rd Circuit upheld the conviction, despite finding that the law "turns each kitchen cupboard and cleaning cabinet in America into a potential chemical weapons cache."

The 3rd Circuit said the 1920 Supreme Court precedent, Missouri v. Holland, limited its review to whether the federal law was rationally related to a valid treaty.

"The arguable consequence of Holland is that treaties and associated legislation are simply not subject to Tenth Amendment scrutiny, no matter how far into the realm of states' rights the president and Congress may choose to venture," it found.

In her latest Supreme Court appeal, Bond, represented by former Solicitor General Paul Clement, claimed that the federal government overreached in trying to criminalize "purely local conduct" by implementing the chemical weapons treaty.

The U.S. government opposed the appeal, saying Congress had authority under the Constitution's Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause to enact the 1998 law.

It also said Bond could not escape the law "because her actions were anything but peaceful."

The court could hear the appeal in April, and if it does would likely issue a decision by the end of June.

The case is Bond v. U.S., U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-158.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Terry Baynes in New York; Editing by Claudia Parsons)

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