Of Course Defendants Can Challenge the Constitutionality of Laws Under Which They’re Prosecuted

Hard cases make bad law, the saying goes.  Well, a bizarre case that the Supreme Court decided unanimously today has set a good precedent for the enforcement of residual Tenth Amendment powers. 

As I described in December when Cato filed a brief in Bond v. United States:

Carol Anne Bond learned that her best friend was having an affair with her husband, so she spread toxic chemicals on the woman’s car and mailbox. Postal inspectors discovered this plot after they caught Bond on film stealing from the woman’s mailbox. Rather than leave this caper to local law enforcement authorities to resolve, however, a federal prosecutor charged Bond with violating a statute that implements U.S. treaty obligations under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Bond pled guilty and was sentenced but now appeals her conviction on the ground that the statute at issue violates the Tenth Amendment – in that her offense was local in nature and not properly subject to federal prosecution. The Third Circuit declined to reach the constitutional question, holding that Bond did not have standing to raise a Tenth Amendment challenge and that, following Supreme Court precedent, a state actor must be a party to the suit in order to challenge the federal government for impinging on state sovereignty. Bond now seeks Supreme Court review on the ground that the statute, as applied to her, is beyond the federal government’s enumerated powers.

Our brief argued that a defendant clearly has standing to challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which she was convicted, but also that lower courts are wrong in assuming that both the president’s power to make treaties and Congress’s power to make laws executing those treaties are unconstrained by the Constitution.  That is, many judges seem to erroneously think that treaties can give the federal government powers it doesn’t otherwise have under the Constitution.

The Court’s ruling today, in a tight opinion by Justice Kennedy, makes clear that individuals can indeed raise Tenth Amendment claims that the federal government has overstepped its enumerated powers.  The Court took no position on the merits of Bond’s constitutional argument – relating to the expansion of federal criminal law via the Treaty Power into areas that should be handled at the state and local levels – but this non-decision is in itself a positive development because it signals that the underlying issue is in dispute.

The Third Circuit is now charged with determining in the first instance whether the law implementing the chemical weapons treaty is “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the Treaty Power, including whether it’s overbroad if it snares people like Bond.

Even if Bond loses on the merits in the Third Circuit and/or the Supreme Court, however, her case has confirmed the idea that someone directly and particularly harmed by a federal law can challenge that law’s constitutionality.  As Justice Ginsburg said in her concurrence,

a court has no “prudential” license todecline to consider whether the statute under which the defendant has been charged lacks constitutional application to her conduct. And that is so even where the constitutional provision that would render the conviction void is directed at protecting a party not before the Court. ….

In short, a law “beyond the power of Congress,” for any reason, is “no law at all.” Nigro v. United States, 276 U. S. 332, 341 (1928). The validity of Bond’s conviction depends upon whether the Constitution permits Congress to enact §229.  Her claim that it does not must be considered and decided on the merits.

For more on the proper scope of the Treaty Power, I recommend Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s “Executing the Treaty Power.”

Update:

Josh Blackman parses Justice Kennedy’s opinion and shows how it tracks the approach that Randy Barnett and Cato have been taking in our Obamacare briefs.